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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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Bertram Potts from Ball of Fire

“You’re big and cute and pretty…to me you’re a regular yum-yum type.”

An English professor who looks like Gary Cooper? It’s almost too good to be true, but it is true in Howard Hawk’s 1941 Ball of Fire and not even Barbara Stanwyck’s stripper Sugarpuss O’Shea can resist him.

There are many things to admire about Bertram Potts. Besides the fact that he looks like Gary Cooper. He’s a professor of English, and he’s not a stuffy professor of English. When the film opens, he is working on slang for an encyclopedia and he reveals a lively curiosity and interest in new knowledge, especially what he calls “a living language” filled with the slang of ordinary Americans and spoken by characters like Sugarpuss and the garbage man.

In fact, his interest is right in line with real-life authors (like the actual author of the film’s script, Billy Wilder). Raymond Chandler was greatly interested in what he called American English and thought that for a while (namely in the 1930s and ’40s) it was filled with the kind of variety, color, and flexibility often associated with Shakespeare.

It is very appropriate, then, that Bertram Potts should also quote Shakespeare to Sugarpuss. He gives her a ring that is inscribed with the location of the quote from Richard III (she asks who Richard ill is), “See how my ring encircles your finger? That’s how your heart embraces my poor heart. Wear both the ring and my heart, because both are yours.” 

But not only is Bertram Potts erudite, he is also sweet and adorable. He’s completely bowled over by Sugarpuss (“a little sun on my hair and you had to water your neck”), way out of his depth, but it is the sincerity and sweetness of his response that wins her over. Without guile, he assumes her declaration of love is exactly as it appears. He takes her at her word, takes her seriously and treats her as a person of value.

He is also about as nonjudgmental as a person can be. He is, admittedly, angry when he discovers that she used him, but that is not judgmental. But does he mind that she is a stripper? Or the girlfriend of a gangster? He always sees her as a person and never as an example of a certain type of woman…though Mrs. Bragg, the housekeeper for the professors, certainly does. Sugarpuss is simply the woman he loves…and who knows some “mouthwatering” slang.

Bertram Potts (or Pottsie, as Sugarpuss calls him) even gets to be heroic. But not by the traditional beat-the-bad-guy-up method – though he does get to eventually beat the bad guy up – but via intellectual knowledge. He and his fellow professors are able to outwit the villains using their knowledge of history, literature and science.

And he looks like Gary Cooper. The only wonder to me is that Sugarpuss does not fall for him sooner, though she does comment that he doesn’t know how to kiss (“the jerk!”) and looks like a “giraffe.” But he had me at “skidoo” (which he traced from the word skedaddle).

This has been my post for the “Reel Infatuation Blogathon,” hosted by Silverscreenings  and Font and Frock. Be sure to check back for more screen crush posts in the recaps for days 1, 2, and 3 of the blogathon.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2017 in Movies

 

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Don Quixote – Miguel De Cervantes

Translated by Edith Grossman

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza by Gustave Dore

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza by Gustave Dore

Whenever I read a particularly long book and it takes me several months to finish it, it becomes part of me, like an old friend. It’s always at my side, in my hands, by my bed, traveling with me, and I am sorry to say farewell.

It took me two months to read Don Quixote and the spine, especially the bottom of it, is now creased, crinkled and starting to tear a little. It is officially a book now, my book, and not just an object that I keep on my shelf, looking literate.

I was meaning to read this book for several years, now; partially because I found a nice copy at a garage sale and it was sitting on my shelf needing to be read and partially because I’ve recently read some other books about knights and chivalry (Le Morte d’Arthur) and I was curious to read this book, which I understood made fun of knights and chivalry and all those stories that tell of them.

The first half definitely does make fun of books about chivalry. In fact, it is reading these books that has made Don Quixote go mad and believe implicitly in all that these books have to say. He is constantly referring to the books for guidance on how he ought to behave.

Accompanying Don Quixote is Sancho Panza, as his squire, who has been promised a governorship. Sancho believes mostly what Don Quixote says, despite frequent misgivings; but Don Quixote usually dismisses anything that doesn’t make sense to Sancho as the work of malicious enchantment. Sancho has a gift for proverbs and a knack for stating the truth, as well as malapropisms.

The first half of the book was published in 1605 and is a delightful, totally random collection of misadventures, miscellaneous characters telling of their woes, the later fulfillment of those characters woes into happiness as they fortuitously stumble into company with Don Quixote, and even the completely random break in the story so the characters can read a short book out loud. It’s all great fun and not apparently meant to be taken  seriously. Don Quixote’s madness seems more like an excuse for whimsy and fun.

The second part – published in 1615 to refute the unauthorized part two that purported to be the further adventures of Don Quixote – reads almost as a different story. The pace slows down considerably, there are far less random and whimsical occurrences, and Cervantes now has a point he is making.

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

For one, instead of the constant references to how deluded Don Quixote is, there are far more references to how intelligent and erudite he is, despite his madness in this one area regarding chivalry. Sancho Panza is portrayed in a much kinder light, too; as possessing simple, common sense. And in the place of random occurrences is a practical joke being played by a Duke and Duchess to show and derive amusement at how mad these two are. In the light of the cruelty of all those who seek to derive amusement from them, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza emerge with far more humanity and dignity, despite their humiliations.

It’s like Cervantes considered books possibly, perhaps humorously, dangerous in the first part, but in the second that point is gone and now the chivalric ideals seem far more ideal – if inherently impractical and never having truly existed, anyway; though there is something noble in how Don Quixote strives to live by them.

It makes for much slower reading, however. It’s poignant, completely tragic and a bit startling after the sheer exuberant fun of the first part. Perhaps the point is made all the more effective for the lighthearted first half.

One endearing aspect of the book is the friendship between Don Quixote and Sancho, particularly in the second part. Harold Bloom remarks, in his introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote, “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza really listen to each other and change through this receptivity.” When, as part of a joke, Sancho is given a governorship temporarily, both men miss each other’s company and bear each other’s words in mind and are most happy to be reunited.

In the back of my copy is a collection of quotes regarding the significance of Don Quixote. The literary critic Lionel Trilling said that “It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote” and the writer, Carlos Fuentes, is quoted as saying that “Don Quixote is the first modern novel, perhaps the most eternal novel ever written and certainly the fountainhead of European and American fiction; here we have Gogol and Dostoevsky, Dickens and Nabokov, Borges and Bellow, Sterne and Diderot in their genetic nakedness, once more taking the road with the gentleman and the squire, believing the world is what we read and discovering that the world reads us.”

This is rather cosmic literary praise; the kind of praise I’ve only heard lavished on the Bible and Shakespeare. William Shakespeare and Miguel De Cervantes were contemporaries, though there is no evidence either knew of the others existence. It must have been a remarkable time for literature. After reading the book, I can understand the praise, though. The book has it all: tragedy and comedy, life and death. Although I do not believe that just because something is ambiguous, therefore it must be profound, I do agree with Harold Bloom in his introduction when he says that, like Shakespeare, Don Quixote can bear many interpretations, or angles and focuses of interpretations. Life is like that, not particularly clear cut, and when a work of art can capture life, it does bear the myriad interpretations of the world. This is why some books can also bear multiple reads.

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

One interpretation that I found interesting is by Ivan Jaksic, in his article “Don Quijote’s Encounter with Technology.” He makes the case that Don Quixote’s embracing of chivalry, the perceived values of an older age, is part of a “confrontation with” technology and a changing world. However, ironically, it is technology that has allowed him to embrace chivalry, since it was the printing press that has made books, which is where he derived his ideas, easily available. It is also ironic, since Don Quixote believes, that since these stories of knights are written down and printed, then they must be true. Jaksic points out that many of Don Quixote’s adventures involve technology: “the windmills, water-powered grain mills, fulling hammers, and firearms, among others.”

There is also, of course, the interpretation offered in the quote by Fuentes, about “believing the world is what we read.” Some argue that Cervantes is saying that it is better, more ennobling, to live with a fantasy than with the cold facts of life.

I find that there is, at least in the second part – I still feel the first part was written chiefly for entertainment and not for any didactic purpose – but there is a celebration of humanity and decency; a valuing of humans. There is something inhuman in how people, even in the first part, encourage Don Quixote in his belief simply so that they might be amused. When he is not being beaten, he is being mocked. Whereas, for all his madness and faults, Don Quixote assumes that everyone is nobler than they really are.

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Books

 

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