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Tag Archives: Tragedy

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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Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

515jl42nlcl-_sx329_bo1204203200_It’s amazing how Gustave Flaubert can write such a tragic ending for a story about a provincial town and one rather silly woman. One is hard pressed to find many sympathetic characters, yet by the end I felt devastated by their stories. Those with some virtues come to sad ends, while the venal, greedy and grasping live on.

Madame Bovary was published in 1856 by Flaubert. It’s subtitle is “Provincial Ways” and is a story of the unspectacular and ordinary. What surprised me was how little sympathy Flaubert seems to have for the unspectacular and ordinary. It is the story of Emma Bovary, who is married to the dull and inferior doctor Charles Bovary and constantly finds life a disappointment. She expects grand passion, romance, and occurrences that demand an extraordinary response from her, but life and people remain resolutely common.

(Plot spoilers contained in this review) – Flaubert employs a unique tone throughout much of the book. Somewhat detached, like he is looking at characters through a microscope while they expose themselves as mediocre, self-deluded, shallow, ineffectual, venal, selfish, grasping, and cowardly.

Emma marries Charles and expects an exciting life, only to realize that, though he adores her, he is mediocre (he manages to maim a patient for life) and lacks imagination. The pharmacist, Homais, is self-important and imagines himself a philosopher (he also prompts Charles to perform the risky surgery that leads to the maiming). Leon is a clerk with aspirations to romanticism and is somewhat of a kindred spirit with Emma, but fundamentally weak-willed. Rodolphe is the cad who loves and leaves Emma. Then there is Lhereaux, the financially predatory draper who ensnares Emma in debt.

While one can sympathize with Emma’s desire for something more, Emma herself is rather silly. She is always acting out according to some kind of romantic model. She rarely seems to experience her own emotions because she is so busy trying to experience the heightened emotions she’s read about. She’s playing a part in a world that has no room for such roles; she wants to be Louise de la Valliere (mistress to Louis XIV before becoming a saintly nun), a martyr or sacrificial wife or saint or mistress. She is waiting for a man to arrive who can inspire these passions. The irony is that she is desired and loved by a surprising number of men, but it rarely inspires the glorious feelings she anticipates.

At bottom, Emma seems a deeply unhappy and discontented woman – so much so that she is frequently unwell (always to Charles’ great concern and helplessness). It’s her hollow despair and grasping at some kind of meaning that leaves the reader feeling an equal sense of hollowness and gloom by the end of the book. Flaubert seems to offer no hope of any deep meaning. Religion, love, duty, philosophy? It is all reduced to empty cant by the characters (like when the cleric and Homais debate religion and philosophy over Emma’s dead body at the end of the book).

downloadOne of the problems is that Emma is so selfish. No matter what role she is playing – devoted mother, repentant sinner – she always has more than half an eye on her emotional responses to these roles, which inevitably is less than inspired.

But most characters are selfish in Madame Bovary. An exception is Charles, but I alternate between admiring his genuine love and frustration with his complete and supine cluelessness. The only person who seems to experience genuine and admirable emotion is Emma’s father, a farmer named Rouault. He fondly remembers bringing his wife home on the night of their wedding and is crushed at the death of Emma – all without a hint of irony and possessing genuine dignity.

Ultimately, although the story is often described as though Emma’s world as what lets her down, one can’t help but wonder if she would have always been dissatisfied, no matter what kind of life she lived. That the emptiness is in her, not the world. The book has also been described as expressing Flaubert’s contempt for the pretensions of the bourgeoisie, but he hints that even the aristocrats’ lives are less romantic than one would think, describing one figure who romantically knew Marie Antoinette as sitting vacantly with soup dribbling down his chin. The entirely book is resolutely anti-romantic.

Flaubert also goes into meticulous, though compact, descriptions of nearly everything. His style is celebrated for that, but I must confess that details were never as interesting to me (I’m not as visual as some readers). However, his metaphors are unique (the carriage in which Emma and Leon consummate their affair is described as being shut up like a tomb and tossing in the sea). On the whole, however, I found his tone detached…up until the devastating ending where Emma commits suicide.

She expects even suicide to be a brave and romantic gesture, like those figures who achieve immortality through beautiful death. Instead, death is an agonizing, drawn-out process that ultimately brings grief to her husband, father and child. The emptiness of it all, her extraordinary desire for something to fill her soul with meaning ultimately seemed very human and and very sad and I was surprised at the power of my response to her at the end, as well as to the inherent progress of life that seems to reward venality and punish sentiment.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2017 in Books

 

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Turning Tragedy into Humor

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Chaplin eating his shoe

In Silverscreenings article on Dr. Strangelove, she brought out a very interesting aspect of the film, how Stanley Kubrick originally intended his film to be a serious drama, but he kept having ideas for his film that he knew would make people laugh, so he instead turned the film into a comedy. Ultimately, she felt that the humor made his point about nuclear warfare all the more potent.

Humor can serve many purposes. One is simply to entertain and make us laugh (always pleasant). Another is rhetorical, to make someone’s position look absurd. I have to admit to being leery of humor used in this way. Not because it isn’t effective or even funny, but because I always feel like I have to be on the alert that I do not allow the humor itself to change my mind.

But another use of humor, the one Silverscreenings highlighted, has really fascinated me. It is to use humor to make something that is not funny at all more accessible to us. Using humor to help us comprehend something that might otherwise be too horrible to grasp. Two masters of this technique who I have been thinking about recently are Charlie Chaplin and Charles Dickens.

Perhaps the finest example of turning something terrible into an indelible moment of humor is the scene in The Gold Rush, where Charlie Chaplin and his friend, played by Mack Swain, are starving in a cabin during a snow storm. Chaplin cooks his boot and serves it for Thanksgiving and later Swain imagines that Chaplin is a chicken and chases him around the cabin trying to shoot him. It’s funny, and yet starvation is actually horrible. While the German army were sieging Leningrad, the inhabitants ate glue. One reads of stories of people becoming deranged with hunger. During the Stalin-induced famine of 1933 in Ukraine, there were a startling number of people who ate other people.

Curiously, it does not seem like Chaplin exaggerates at all in The Gold Rush. He just made it funny. He took a topic that no one would particularly like to watch and made us watch it. He does the same thing with poverty.

Mr. Podsnap, in the act of sweeping all unpleasentness behind him

Mr. Podsnap, in the act of sweeping all unpleasantness away

Charles Dickens is another person who uses humor in this way. Not exactly a barrel of laughs, but Beadle Bumble in Oliver Twist could have been a loathsome character (which he really is), but Dickens turns him into a figure of fun, even though it’s clear Dickens hates him and everything he stands for (the workhouse), but even gives him several unforgettable lines (“The law is a ass”). By making Bumble unforgettable, Dickens also makes the workhouse unforgettable.

I’m reading Our Mutual Friend right now, Dickens’ last completed novel, where we meet the wealthy Mr. Podsnap, who has a trick of using his arm to metaphorically sweep all unpleasant subjects away from him – any subject that would “bring a blush into the cheek of the young person [his daughter].” Hunger, poverty, the existence of other countries other than his own. I think that is what Dickens uses humor to do, to prevent us from sweeping it all behind us.

But it also makes it accessible. Few people would voluntarily watch a movie or read a book about starvation. I’m not sure starvation is something we could fully comprehend (unless we had really gone hungry) or even nuclear warfare. We understand intellectually, but not truly. Humor can give one an “in.” A way to approach the subject and really look at it.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

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