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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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The Lodger (1944)

220px-Thelodger1944Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel The Lodger, about a man suspected of being Jack the Ripper, has been adapted to film multiple times: most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927 and later by director John Brahm in 1944. I haven’t yet seen Hitchcock’s silent film or read the book, however in the book, the identity of the lodger is left ambiguous, in Hitchcock’s film the lodger turns out to be innocent, but in Brahm’s 1944 film, starring Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon and George Sanders, there is little question that the lodger is indeed the murderer.

Ellen (Sara Allgood) and Robert Bonting (Cedric Hardwicke) are a financially strapped middle-class family obliged to let rooms and their new lodger is a mysterious man (Laird Cregar) who claims to be a pathologist. He needs a room in the attic to conduct his experiments and keeps irregular hours and is out most nights. His name, he says, is Mr. Slade, which ironically is the name of the street near the Bonting’s house.

Meanwhile, there is mass panic in London. There has been a series of murders by an unknown assailant the papers are calling Jack the Ripper. Police are practically blanketing London and still the murders continue. Scotland Yard, lead by Inspector John Warwick (George Sanders), have noticed that all the victims have so far been women who have been on the stage at one point or other. And troublingly, the Bontings have a niece living with them who is on the stage, Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon). Kitty is working her way up the ranks from cabaret to musical theater.

Mr. Slade is a soft spoken man, but he is definitely a bit odd. He expresses dislike of actresses – calling them women “subtle of heart,” which is a reference in Proverbs to harlots – and is besotted by his deceased, sensitive artist brother. He is polite and Kitty thinks he must be a very lonely man, but he also radiates mystery and menace (and Laird Cregar is a huge man who towers over everybody, including George Sanders, who is over six feet tall). Mr. and Mrs. Bonting (especially Mrs. Bonting) begin to suspect that Mr. Slade is really Jack the Ripper. Mr. Bonting initially pooh-poohs his wife’s suspicions as irrationally founded without facts, but gradually begins to join her in her suspicions. In fact, Mr. Bonting is a bit of an armchair detective, absolutely fascinated by the mystery, reading the morning papers and the evening papers in an attempt to stay always current.

Laird Cregar

Laird Cregar

There is a lot of newspaper reading in The Lodger: early in the morning, in the evening, always catching the very latest news the moment it hits the streets in the kind of sensationalist immediacy found today.

It’s not exactly a mystery that Mr. Slade is really Jack the Ripper and the plot is not particularly well-developed. What it does have and one of the reasons I like it so much, is atmosphere. There is fog everywhere on the cobblestones of London. It’s not quite like the fog described by Charles Dickens in Bleak House, which is almost a living substance, thick, murky, and polluting. However, it is still all-pervasive and would give the film a cozy feeling if there wasn’t so much menace. There are the buskers singing their songs while people wait to enter the theater where Kitty Langley is performing, the warm pub where people sing and drink with the fog outside, making the inside look all the more inviting. Policemen are reassuringly positioned on every corner of every street, giving the appearance of safety and solidity. But it doesn’t do any good and somehow Jack the Ripper continues to find his victims, practically under the noses of the police.

What also makes the film stand out is Laird Cregar as Mr. Slade. He is the ultimate alienated anti-hero. He reeks of alienation, with his puppy-dog eyes that can also threaten with a fanatical light. As DVD Savant describes the film and Cregar’s performance: “Once again teamed with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, Brahm’s camera cranes over shiny cobble-stoned back lots and isolates characters in dingy rooms. Cregar’s alienation and weirdness is accentuated by dramatic accent lighting on his tortured eyes.”

PHOTO_17381111_66470_9229404_apThere is also a fantastic Phantom of the Opera-like ending, with a confrontation in the theater dressing room and a chase backstage on the catwalks.

George Sanders seems a bit under-used as the solid Scotland Yard inspector who is much taken with Kitty and is somewhat solidly groping his way towards solving the mystery and trying to protect Kitty. Still, one never objects to the presence of George Sanders in a film, even when he doesn’t have much to do.

Kitty, I actually found to be a unique character, if not a complex one. She is just returned from Paris, where she learned the new Parisian dances and has brought a company of French girls back with her to London and is making her way in a very calm, business-like way, like she was running a business and not a “saucy” show. She practically makes the cancan respectable. Even her respectable aunt and uncle seem to have no qualms about her chosen profession. She’s such a sympathetic person that it doesn’t seem to click for her how odd Mr. Slade really is. Perhaps it’s because, as my sister suggested, she’s used to meeting odd people in the theater or simply because she’s so busy recognizing the loneliness in him that it doesn’t register how dangerous he is or that he is in fact threatening her.

The Lodger can currently be found on youtube.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2015 in Movies

 

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