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Oliver Parker's sexual thriller suffers from the presence of Shakespeare's racial sensibilities and the absence of his poetry.

Alan A. Stone

Iago launches the first act of Shakespeare's Othello by shouting into the stillness of the Venetian night, "The old black ram is tupping your white ewe." With that Negrophobic alarm, Shakespeare's most cunning and mysterious villain rouses Brabantio, the father of Desdemona, and exposes the raw nerve of White racism—the archetypal fear of the sexually triumphant Black man. Laurence Fishburne is the first actor I have ever seen bring to the role of Othello the smouldering sexual vibrations that keep this nerve pulsating.

Fishburne is certainly far from the best actor to have played the part: Laurence Olivier filmed his own stage version; Orson Welles constructed a flawed but brilliant film; James Earl Jones toured on stage in the part. And all these actors gave heroic dimension to Othello: Olivier gave him effrontery, Welles fury, Jones dignity. Fishburne now gives him sexuality. Though he may not read the lines as well as his predecessors, his visual presence on the screen is stunning. Exactly as director and screenwriter Oliver Parker intended, Fishburne's Othello is heightened so that he is at least cinematically equal to the Iago of Kenneth Branagh—arguably the English-speaking world's greatest living actor. On stage, without the artifices of the "magic lantern," without closeups of Fishburne's face, and with all of Othello's poetry to be spoken, this production would have been a disaster. But Parker reconceived Shakespeare's as a sexual thriller, and knew—in his first feature film—how the camera could help.

Filmmakers have a bag of tricks unique to their medium, which audiences now take for granted, but which were once astonishing. Biographers report that Wittgenstein insisted on sitting in the front row at movies because he wanted to be overwhelmed by their images. Sartre shared his childhood movie-going passion with his young widowed mother. As he explained in his autobiographical Words, it was their fantasy-land escape from an austere reality. Later he would analyze the medium to demonstrate how much more mind control over the audience the movie has compared to the stage play. In the theater the stage set is fixed in time and place; members of the audience are free to look wherever they choose. They need not attend to the actor who is speaking, but can focus on a piece of furniture, a minor actor, or the spotlighting of the stage. In the darkened movie house, a member of the audience can only close his eyes or submit and follow the moving images on the screen. The actors are larger than life, and a director can force the entire audience to watch a single face on the screen waiting to be kissed. The separate members of the audience are constituted as an anonymous collectivity of voyeurs peeping through the camera's keyhole. The director who commands the camera thus has more power over the audience than any actor, and the camera's compelling visual images have more impact than the actor's words.

But Shakespeare is primarily about words; an actor's challenge is to speak the poetry, capture the deeper meaning, and sustain the dramatic intensity. One might therefore expect the film versions of his plays to be disastrous. Not so. There have been many marvelous films of Shakespeare plays. Olivier and Branagh both did Henry V in versions that rival each other but surpass any stage production. The same can be said of Zeffereli's Romeo and Juliet, Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar, and Peter Brook's magnificent King Lear. Director Oliver Parker's film falls far below this standard, but then Shakespeare's Othello is a peculiarly challenging text.

Fifty years ago, Paul Robeson played Othello on Broadway to wildly enthusiastic audiences. But Othello has become a notoriously difficult stage play to perform and it can be painful, even distasteful, to watch. It is the only Shakespeare play about which many thoughtful people have said that they prefer Verdi's operatic version. The problem in every modern performance is that Othello is so unreflective, Desdemona so helpless, and Iago so mysteriously evil that the painfulness of the storyline is unmitigated: There is no one with whom the audience can identify and empathize. Unthinking jealousy compounded by racism is a better formula for the stylistics of an opera than an engrossing theatrical performance.

Comparison with the Merchant of Venice is instructive. Both plays are set in Venice, the great maritime city-state of Marco Polo and Andrea Doria, an empire of its time, which imported ethnic and racial diversity along with commercial goods; this made the Rialto a natural setting for tales of racism and anti-semitism. But as in Shakespeare's other plays that invoke racial and ethnic stereotypes, these Venetian plays reveal the cultural biases that confine even Shakespeare's genius. Jessica, Shylock's daughter, is saved by stealing some of her father's fortune and running off with a Christian spendthrift. And, although audiences remember Portia for her line about mercy, she strips Shylock of every single penny and his religious identity as well, forcing him to convert to Christianity on pain of death, much as the Inquisitors of the Church did to his brethren. Although Shylock has his great speech (". . . does a Jew not have feelings . . ."), Shakespeare wastes little sympathy on him. The audience was meant to be amused by the judgment meted out to this vengeful Jew.

Although Othello has been assigned nobility and great poetry, he is one of Shakespeare's most unreflective characters. Unlike Shylock, who reflects on his status as a Jew and is bitterly aware of his degraded position as such, Othello never questions his Blackness or reflects on his precarious position in a world of White men. Othello acts, overreacts, has epileptic seizures, suffers terribly, but does not reflect. Taking Iago's bait of jealousy without caution or consideration, he flashes into violence against his innocent bride. Bradley, the famous Shakespeare scholar, says that "Othello's mind, for all its poetry, is very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect." (It is no answer to say that Othello is a warrior; after all, Macbeth is a much bloodier warrior, and he reflects on his situation.)

Recognizing Othello as different in this way is not the same as understanding why Shakespeare conceived the Moor as so simple and unreflective. Reading the Venetian plays, however, one might well conclude that though Shakespeare understood almost as much about anti-semitism and racism as we do today, his knowledge about Jews and Blacks was narrowly circumscribed by stereotype.

Thus the difficulties for 20th century audiences. Thus, too, the standard tactic of the directors seeking to reach them: give the roles of Shylock and Othello to actors of enormous talent and star power in the hope that the actor will transform the character and give it grandeur. Lawrence Olivier did this with both roles brilliantly but it was a theatrical trick, not a solution to the fundamental problem of the stereotyped protagonists.

Oliver Parker had a different idea. Cognizant of Othello's empty unreflectiveness, he filled the void with sex and violence, all of it realized through Fishburne's visual presence—made all the more stunning because someone had the ingenious idea of tattooing the side of his shaved head, making him unforgettably iconic.

Fishburne will be remembered as the wife-battering Ike Turner of Tina Turner's autobiographical What's Love Got To Do With It?. The film had a great impact in England and Fishburne's performance earned him the role of Othello. Parker was looking for a Black actor who would give Othello an Ike-Turner-edge of sexual intimidation and violence. The idea was to make the erotic relationship between Othello and Desdemona the emotional fulcrum of the play. Parker's experience playing Iago in repertory had convinced him that for modern audiences the play had become unbalanced and the relationship between Othello and Desdemona had lost its dramatic energy. Othello was supposed to be Shakespeare's most psychological play, a drama of private passions, but the diabolical evil of Iago and his hatred for the noble Othello was more intriguing to modern audiences than the almost platonic love relationship between the noble Moor and his childlike Desdemona.

Fishburne's physicality and his stilted American speaking of the lines make him the embodiment of the alien "other" summoned from the racist's nightmare of miscegenation. The casting for all of the other parts is bold, creative, and in line with this premise. Desdemona, in particular, is not the blond-haired ingenue we have come to expect in traditional productions. The sensual, dark-haired Swiss actress, Irene Jacob, has been given the role. And although Shakespeare's Othello says "she loved me for the pains I have suffered," this Desdemona, speaking in heavily accented English, conveys the full measure of erotic chemistry that can precipitate a sudden elopement.

This is not Shakespeare's Desdemona, who asks Emilia, her maid and Iago's wife, whether women are ever sexually unfaithful to their husbands. Desdemona cannot believe the truthful answer; that is the measure of her virginal naivete. Parker has sacrificed all these innocent lines. Irene Jacob's heavily accented reading labors over her few lines; like Fishburne, she earned her part because of her erotic screen presence. Critics who object to this heavy-handed vulgarization of Shakespeare's play must concede that in the 20th century, when ten-year-old children are sexually sophisticated, Shakespeare's Desdemona would be something of a joke.

An ambitious director might have bitten the bullet and cast a very young girl as Desdemona. But adding discrepancies in age to racial difference would have provoked even greater outrage than Irene Jacob's fleshy and sensuous Desdemona. She is an erotic match for Fishburne on the screen and Othello does not have to be crazed to imagine her making love to another man—especially after Parker inserts a scene in which Othello watches Desdemona dance with Cassio, with a spark of sensual pleasure in her eye. All of this makes Othello's jealousy more believable.

Though Parker sacrifices the complexity of the play and most of its greatness to make it coherent for modern sensibilities, Branagh's Iago somehow survives, and with new dimensions. Othello and Iago in Shakespeare's play are in a certain sense more intimate than the Moor and his bride. An orthodox Freudian reading of the play uses this intimacy to resolve the mystery of Iago's evil nature into his repressed homosexual attraction to the vibrantly sexual and brutal Moor. And in the film the body language between Fishburne and Branagh implies dominance-submission, sadism-masochism.

Fishburne may not accept the Freudian reading, but an improvised scene demonstrates his psychological understanding of the relationship. In a show of brute strength he holds the scheming Iago's head underwater until the man almost drowns. According to Freudian formulas, the subordinate Iago first feels sexual jealousy because he has projected his own repressed passive and masochistic desires onto his wife Emilia; his first soliloquy of revenge tells the audience that Othello "has done my service in Emilia's bed." In his own paranoid mind a victim of sexual betrayal, Iago has the blueprint of the idea to make Othello believe he has suffered the same fate.

The Freudian interpretation, as usual, overstates the case, but the play certainly suggests this motive for revenge. Iago reiterates the charge in his second soliloquy. Furthermore, when Emilia realizes what Iago has done, she immediately attributes it to his unjustified belief that she had betrayed him with Othello. The attribution comes so quickly that Iago must have accused her of betrayal. And Fishburne's Othello would seem to justify such beliefs. He is the kind of man Iago would take pleasure in hating.

Several stage actors have played this Freudian Iago, most notably Christopher Plummer. His Othello (James Earl Jones) stabs him in the groin at the end of the play to punctuate this reading. Branagh's Freudian gesture is less obvious. In his conniving interchanges with Roderigo, Cassio, and Othello, his Iago sometimes assumes a seductive feminine demeanor, wooing them with yielding words and promises. There is a particularly striking scene after Othello's arrival in Cyprus where the celebration of the Turkish fleet's destruction has become a drunken orgy. In a cart rocking above them the camera reveals, without being overly graphic, that a couple is having intercourse while below a gleeful Iago embraces Roderigo and deviously sets him on to further machinations.

But if Branagh's performance suggests repressed homosexuality, he is too great an actor to let Freud dominate Shakespeare. His mercurial Iago has not one great motive but rather several, all suggested in Shakespeare's text. He has served Othello faithfully for many years in campaigns of war only to have Othello appoint Cassio, an untested soldier, over him—at least so he claims. Thus Iago has been doubly wronged by the Moor; resentment and envy abet sexual jealousy. So Cassio is a perfect target against whom Iago will foment Othello's jealous rage. Furthermore, the play gives us reason to believe or suspect that Cassio is from the ranks of Italian gentlemen while Iago is a self-made man. Such parvenus fare poorly in Shakespeare's plays; they are overreaching and flawed in character, and even when they are wronged they end badly. Iago, one of these, is not just a vengeful malefactor, but a con man and a thief as he manipulates Roderigo, Desdemona's embittered suitor, to sell all he has and "put money in your pocket," most of which ends up in Iago's purse.

Branagh's Iago is also caught up in the momentum of his own improvisations, as in his evil deeds he mirrors the inexplicable creative genius of his creator. Iago, like Hamlet, is one of Shakespeare's many imaginary selves—this one can imagine unimaginable evils. When Othello finally grasps the full extent of Iago's malevolence, the Moor demands an explanation but Iago, in a fitting show of intransigence, takes a vow of silence. And Othello understands that this is as it should be. Iago is a perfect villain who will not give us the satisfaction of fully knowing his reasons—he offers neither confession nor contrition. Evil can have no complete explanation. Branagh, who did one of this century's greatest Hamlets on stage, has now given us a superb Iago on film.

But Branagh's triumph may have defeated Parker's film. His Iago is everything but what this film needed—a blood and guts racist. Parker describes Branagh's performance as down-to-earth rather than "diabolical"—but he did not come down to the prosaic level required by the screenplay. One cannot escape the feeling that the guileful Kenneth Branagh knows where all the great actors before him have gone and now charts his own course. Parker's frequent closeups of Fishburne's glowering dark eyes keep Branagh's Iago from stealing the whole show. But Iago can be found in Shakespeare's play; Parker created Jacob's Desdemona and Fishburne's Othello.

Parker thought out very carefully every detail of his screenplay and if Shakespeare purists disapprove, as surely they must, it is not because Parker fails to understand the beauty of Shakespeare's poetry or the tragedy of Othello. Fully realizing Shakespeare's genius, Parker and Branagh aim to bring more people into his temple. Branagh certainly knows how to do traditional Shakespeare but he also realizes that a production that will pack the largest theater in London does not translate into the medium of film and will not pack the movie houses. And he realizes, too, that British actors with the training and skill to read Shakespeare's lines may have neither strong screen presence nor box office drawing power. Moreover, his theory is that the problem cannot just be laid on the shoulders of the film-going audience. An outsider from Belfast, he believes that some of the blame belongs to narcissistic English Shakespeare traditionalists.

He tried to break the English mold in his film version of Much Ado About Nothing by including American movie stars. But try as they might, Denzel Washington and the other Hollywood actors simply could not master Shakespeare's language. Shakespeare's comic scenes in the play are based on a lunatic but ingenious sequence of malapropisms which carry the opposite meaning of the speaker's intention. The humor was entirely lost in Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves' American translation, even if one knew the arcane lines being spoken. Nonetheless, the high-spirited musical-comedy feeling of the film did succeed in attracting a new audience to one of Shakespeare's less well-known comedies, and grossed almost $50 million at the box office. Branagh is now doing a four-hour film Hamlet with a most unlikely array of Hollywood actors. It will either be a disaster, or a miracle.

Parker's Othello succeeds better than Much Ado About Nothing in integrating its diverse and non-Shakespearean actors, but at great cost. The film opened in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson trial, and some of the film's backers must have been thanking their lucky stars expecting to cash in on the American craze. But if the television drama fascinated the public, Oliver Parker's did not. Othello is not a bad film, and it is cinematically beautiful, but it has failed to find a new audience for Shakespeare and is very far from an enlightening interpretation of one of his most difficult plays.

If Shakespeare's own Othello was the Elizabethan stereotype of an African savage, Parker's version is the modern stereotype of the inner-city Black. Parker's Othello has no fall from innocence, no defining tragic moment, and Fishburne offers no more than his physical presence. Parker hoped that sexual passion would bring emotional coherence to a play that has puzzled Shakespeare critics for two centuries. But he addresses the racial problem by eliminating Othello's grandeur and Desdemona's innocence—a solution that required him to sacrifice most of their poetry and the miracle of their love.

Othello by most accounts was the tragedy written after Hamlet, when Shakespeare was at the height of his powers. But unlike Hamlet with its Ghost, Macbeth with its witches, or Richard III with its bloody scheme of royal succession, Othello is an un-Shakespeare-like tragedy without supernatural forces or great political-historical significance. And is there any other noble hero in the Shakespeare canon who hits his wife in public, treats her like a whore, and kills her with his own hands? Shakespeare's script prepares us to be shocked by that public blow—the tragedy's defining moment. The old warrior Othello loves Desdemona because she pities him, not because she excites him. And the Moor gives assurances in every respect that he will be gentle with his innocent bride. Othello is the very antithesis of Iago's Negrophobic black ram. Far from Fishburne's incendiary Othello, Shakespeare's Moor assures us that the days of his hot-blooded youthful excesses are finished. He can conduct the war against the Turks without being distracted by his new bride. Frank Kermode compares Othello and Desdemona in the first act of the play to Adam and Eve before the fall. Be that as it may, when Othello strikes Desdemona the audience sees the beast in man revealed, and that savage beast is a Black man. Shakespeare's Othello speaks sublime poetry but he confirms Elizabethan stereotypes of race.

But the failure of Parker's film is less severe when measured against the Olivier and Welles films. Pauline Kael might now prefer to expunge her rhapsodic review of the Olivier production from her collected works. She opined that no Black actor, not even Paul Robeson, could bring to the role of Othello what Olivier had. But an Othello in black (or brown) face is an affront to contemporary sensibilities. And the brilliant Olivier production, as Kael herself admits, "isn't even much of a movie." Branagh described it as a narcissistic English interpretation of Shakespeare. Orson Welles is not English, but in black face he is today as out of place as Olivier, and his Othello is more notable for its exotic cinematic style than its substance. The failure of all three films suggests that Shakespeare's play may have no contemporary cinematic solution. And this is because it was written for an audience that could accept racist stereotypes as truisms without acknowledging their own racism.

I mentioned earlier that many people prefer Verdi's opera to Shakespeare's play. Shakespeare's poetry, surely, is at least the equivalent of Verdi's music. The most useful insight into Shakespeare's Othello emphasizing the poetry comes from Bradley's lectures. Though he acknowledges all of the play's difficulties—the pain and dismay produced in the audience by the sudden explosion of savagery that comes from the noble Moor—he makes brilliant excuses for Shakespeare's racist stereotype. He quotes with approval Swinburne's line that "we pity Othello even more than we pity Desdemona." He acknowledges that no rationalization satisfactorily explains this unsettling tragedy and that the many troubling issues it raises "cannot be decided by argument." More simply, I would say, no solution will make the racism of Shakespeare and his audiences disappear.

But Bradley's consoling insight is that Othello may be Shakespeare's greatest poet and if we read the play and its poetry "with all our force" we will feel these objections less. Parker's Othello does not and cannot provide us that consolation. Unfortunately, with all its technical powers over mind, the medium of film has found no way to heighten, or even to convey, poetry's magical powers.

Originally published in the April/ May 1996 issue of Boston Review

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