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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.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2017 in Books

 

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Miss Marple, Sleeping Murder and The Duchess of Malfi

834354Agatha Christie often liked to use lines from plays, nursery rhymes or poems as clues, plot-devices and titles for her books. One quotation that made an early impression on me was the reference to the poem “The Lady of Shalott” in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (which was possibly based somewhat on a tragic incident involving Gene Tierney). The second quotation that made a deep impression on me was:

“Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”

This was from John Webster’s play, “The Duchess of Malfi,” first performed in 1613, and is quoted in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping MurderSleeping Murder is one of my favorite Miss Marple novels and I’ve long wanted to read the play. I was curious if knowledge of the play would furnish extra clues pointing towards the murderer.

(I will try not to overtly give away the identity if the murderer, but through the act of discussing both stories unintended spoilers might occur)

The Plot of “Sleeping Murder”

Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, after Agatha Christie’s death, but was actually written in 1940 during the Nazi blitz of London. Newly married Gwenda Reed was raised in New Zealand and has just arrived in England for the first time to look for a house for her and her husband, Giles. She finds the perfect house, which seems to draw her to it, but she keeps experiences odd little moments of seemingly psychic insight. She seems to know things about the house, as if she had visited it before. The existence of a door now plastered over. The existence of steps that were moved. The exact pattern and color of the wallpaper hidden under another, uglier wallpaper.

But when she attends a production of the play “The Duchess of Malfi” and hears the line “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young,” a memory flashes through her mind of standing on the stairs, looking through the banisters, at the strangled corpse of a young woman, while the murderer stands over the corpse and quotes that line from the play. Gwenda is sure the young woman was named Helen.

Except Gwenda doesn’t remember knowing anyone named Helen. While she and her husband begin to dig into the mystery of the house and of Helen, only their friend Miss Marple is able to put everything together.

What I’ve always loved about the book is the sense of haunting, how the past still hovers over the house and the idea of stirring up an evil that lay dormant for many years. It’s a poignant concept and although Sleeping Murder is not one of Agatha Christie’s most mind-bending puzzles (it’s one of her few novels where I correctly guessed the identity of the murderer), her sense of atmosphere is marvelous.

The Duchess getting strangled

The Duchess being strangled

The Plot of “The Duchess of Malfi”

“The Duchess of Malfi” is, in the words of Miss Marple’s nephew, “a bit grisly.” And a bit macabre. And salacious. Everyone is obsessed with the widowed Duchess’s sex life, but no one is more obsessed than her brother, Ferdinand, who eventually has her murdered when he discovers she’s secretly married again. A trail of corpses is the ultimate, with the Duchess making the most poignant one.

It is when Ferdinand sees his sister’s strangled body that he utters the lines,

Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”

And then goes mad with lycanthropy (he’s convinced he’s a werewolf).

Incest is one of the themes of the play and this theme comes out in Sleeping Murder, as well.

One character even made me think of a potential Norman Bates type (possibly because I was reading the book the same day I watched Psycho for the first time). He is a reliable, shy and very nice solicitor who never married and seems dominated by his mother. Could he kill anyone?

The entire play is also drenched in a sense of haunting, of doom, dreams and warnings and evil that seeks to destroy what is good. Some of that mood can also be found in the novel. And Miss Marple is the only one who sees it clearly.

One of the things that I always love about Miss Marple is how utterly conversant she is in all aspects of human nature. Nothing shocks her. Not even Webster. She looks like a nice, curious, nosy, fluffy old lady, always knitting shapeless woolly things, but there’s nothing shapeless or woolly about her mind.

But what is interesting to me is how Miss Marple manages to combine an essential goodness with a sharp and trenchant mind. Considering how many murders have occurred in her time and how deep-seated her insight is into humanity and its many depravities and weaknesses, she never loses a deep compassion for people. This quote near the end of the book always makes me laugh, when she explains that Gwenda and Gile’s mistake was to believe what they were told.

It is really very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.

And yet she’s not a cynical old misanthrope! Amazing.

This was my contribution to the Agatha Christie Blogathon. Be sure to read all the other excellent posts for Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3!

AgathaChristie

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2016 in Books

 

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Discussing My Fair Lady: The Ending

Poster - My Fair Lady_03In his introduction to the Penguin edition of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion, Nicholas Grene calls the ending of the musical “a vulgar travesty of the play’s design.” Vulgar? Good heavens.

I appreciate what Grene is saying, that “the whole point of the play is the independent autonomy which Liza achieves, denying her status as Higgins’ male artifact,” though I disagree that that is Shaw’s whole point. He has a variety of them going on, which confuses things and prevents the play from being divided up into neat points. And there are certainly some issues I have with Shaw’s epilogue to “Pygmalion,” which he wrote later to detail once and for all what happens to Eliza and Henry Higgins so people would stop trying to put a romantic spin on his un-romantic play. However, after some reading of the play, I have concluded that the romantic spin is partially his own fault and that his epilogue is not very satisfactory at all and far too neat (but I want to write about that next week).

Perhaps I am just being defensive, because the truth is, I love the musical and I love the play. It is the musical that brought me to Shaw. I am obsessed with all things “Pygmalion” and I don’t think it’s right having one manifestation played against the next, as if they were in antagonism with each other. But in my mind, complaining that the musical is a travesty of the play is like saying the play is a travesty of Ovid’s Pygmalion account. Shaw has completely changed the meaning and ethos of Ovid’s passage in Metamorphoses. This is not a travesty. It’s genius.

But when people discuss the ending of the musical, they forget that there was a movie made in 1938, produced by Gabriel Pascal, adapted from his own work by George Bernard Shaw and starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. There had been two previous adaptations of “Pygmalion” into film, a Dutch and German version that Shaw loathed and thought were highly sentimentalized. It was generally thought that the play could never really be turned into a good movie. One, because it is a drawing room comedy of manners and all the action that we associate with the story – the ball, teaching Eliza how to speak and act – occurs offstage. Second, not only did the play not have a happy ending, it did not really have an ending at all. Imagine, for a moment, a movie that ends simply with Eliza walking out of the room. It would be a bit abrupt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Shaw worked very closely with Pascal on the adaption of his play and ultimately was extremely pleased with it, despite the ending that Pascal managed to slip in without his knowledge. He also opposed the casting of Leslie Howard – he wanted Charles Laughton – because it slanted Higgins towards possible romance (something I don’t think people would have been as inclined to anticipate if Laughton had been in the film). But the film remains remarkably, delightfully literate for a movie and Shaw wrote to Pascal that it was “an all-British film, made by British methods without interference from American script writers, no spurious dialogue, but every word by its author, a revolution in the presentation of drama in the film.” He remained grateful to Pascal for taking many of his plays (including an excellent film adaption of “Major Barbara,” also starring Wendy Hiller) and faithfully doing them justice in a cinematic setting.

But about that ending. In the epilogue to the play, Shaw has Eliza marry Freddy, a man she neither loves nor respects. I suppose he married her off to be cranky and to try to settle her fate so no one else could, even in their imagination, marry her to Higgins. I don’t find it very convincing, however. It seems more likely that she would marry neither man.

But when Lerner and Loewe came together to make a musical, they could not for the life of them figure out how to turn the play into a musical. Oscar Hammerstein II declared that it was impossible. No romance, no chorus, a whole lot of talk. Finally, the solution hit them and they decided to base their musical, not on the play, but on the 1938 film adaption. And indeed, when you watch the 1938 adaption, it is remarkable how similar they are, in dialogue, in action, in events. One almost expects Leslie Howard to break into song. So really, the musical is a very good adaptation of a movie that Shaw approved of. Except the ending, of course.

But I have no real problem with the romantic ending, since it is perfectly internally consistent with the story that the movie and musical are telling. And neither musical nor movie is highly sentimental. In the musical, there are no love duets, the word love is never even mentioned, the characters don’t sit around contemplating their love, since they don’t even realize it. Higgins’ moment of revelation comes at the end, when he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Pygmalion_serialized_November_1914For Alan Jay Lerner (who wrote the book and lyrics of the musical), “My Fair Lady” involves a transformation not just for Eliza, but most fundamentally for Professor Higgins. Eliza’s character doesn’t fundamentally change, but his does. He’s been unconsciously softened by her. In Lerner’s words, “in a far less tangible way, Higgins goes through as much of a transformation as Eliza, the only difference being that Shaw would never allow the transformation to run its natural course.” Shaw’s Higgins remains fixed in character, Lerner and Loewe, and even Pascal, have their Higgins undergo a character arc.

Another reason I think this works is because movies and musicals are fundamentally different from a play. A movie naturally tends towards romance – or at least strong emotional ties – because it is a more intimate art form than a play. And a musical must have some transcendent emotions to express musically, otherwise, why bother writing a musical? The romance is told, the characters change, through the music, not through words. In fact, because of the music of Frederick Loewe, Rex Harrison is able to play Henry Higgins as a far less romantic figure than Leslie Howard, because he has the songs to express his feelings. Howard must do it on his own and is therefore slightly softer than Harrison.

I do, however, have one complaint about the ending of the film version of My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. My complaint mostly rests in the casting of Hepburn. She’s really not bad in the role, but she lacks that fundamental spunk and strong individualism that is found in the play and 1938 movie Eliza. I don’t think this is the fault of the musical, but of Hepburn’s persona. When she goes back to Higgins, it looks like a defeat, desperation on her part to be with him, without his having to change. But I suspect that with Julie Andrews it was different. You can even hear the difference in her singing of “Just You Wait, Enry Iggins” and “Without You” in the Broadway and London cast recordings. Hepburn is overwhelmed by Harrison, but I would have believed Andrews when she said she can do without him. Her return would have signaled a change in their relationship. I don’t have that same sense with Audrey Hepburn.

Sources:

The Making of My Fair Lady – Keith Garebian

Introduction to the Penguin Edition of “Pygmalion” – Nicholas Grene

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Books, Movies

 

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