Book Review Travel

Othello by William Shakespeare

Photo on 20-12-2015 at 17.56 #2

About two months ago I spent a week in Finland, driving through the countryside from flea market to charity shop to second hand store to weird provincial strip malls with my “partner”*, who was buying shitloads of Scandinavian knitwear in order to sell it in a Wintry London that never arrived.

I have no interest in second hand jumpers and rows of antiques, and thus I spent a lot of time very bored. Due to the fact that I was driving (my companion left his or her** driving license at home), I couldn’t fill this time with boozing***, so I wandered around strange suburban towns, alongside gorgeous lakeshores, or sometimes sat in the car and listened to the Guns ‘N Roses CD I’d bought in a service station. On the occasions when we were in particularly weird and rural locations, I tended to not want to lose sight of my girlfriend**** due to my own nervousness.

Rural Finland looks a lot like Twin Peaks, and I was constantly a little worried about Bob coming out of the wilderness and killing or possessing me.

One junk shop we arrived at was a pair of wooden barns a ten minute drive from the nearest other building. One of the barns was a “rescue centre”***** for dogs and cats, and thus the sound of fifty caged animals leaked into my ears as soon as I stepped from the car. The larger of the barns, labelled as the junk shop (yünk stør or whatever, I don’t remember) was locked shut, a steel sliding door padlocked behind an array of rocking chairs on a raised veranda. As we turned around, two people vaporised in the mist, a middle aged woman, dressed like the Log Lady, and a man who looked like a cartoon lumberjack, only chain-smoking and seventy years old.

The man held back and leant against the door to the house pet abattoir, covering the glass that would’ve let us see inside. The woman climbed the two steps to the steel door, fiddled with the lock and crashed it open. She walked into darkness and, with the whirr of a generator, neon strip lights illuminated the high ceiling, and beneath were revealed rows of clothes rails and shelves of tat – old board games, records, musical instruments, cutlery, ceramics, CDs, white goods – the contents of fifty houses, all removed from context and displayed within this middle of nowhere barn.

There were enough rows to lose sense of self, enough twists and turns to feel within a maze – all the outer walls being covered with objects to differing depths meant that a sense of the space was difficult to judge. In one corner of the barn (or what felt like a corner) I found a large shelving unit covered in books. Naturally, being the bibliophile****** that I am, I was drawn in. I read the spines and judged books by covers – a lot of Finnish, Russian and other Germanic texts, but the same kind of low brow trite one would find in an equivalent setting in the UK. There were about three books in English. One was a coffee table soft porn book from the ’80s*******, one was a cheap crime thriller******** and the third was this Signet Classics edition of Othello by William Shakespeare. I leant against a chair that was upholstered in leather that still had chunks of hair attached to it and read the introduction. I bought the book and left.

Now, months on, I read the rest of it.

Obviously, I’ve read Othello before, but because I’m no longer an English student, I haven’t read any Shakespeare in years. Through an MA, a BA, an A Level and a GCSE, I’ve read the vast majority of Shakespeare’s canon. There are maybe four or five I haven’t (Henry VIII definitely no, but without looking at a list I couldn’t tell you the rest), but the tragedies are all things I returned to during my (alas, wasted) education. My favourites were Anthony & Cleopatra and The Merchant of Venice, and Othello is a play I read once in a mould-ridden student room the size of the back of a black cab about 7 years ago. It’s an important one, and an influential one, I remember a lecture broadly debating – remember, I didn’t go to a great university – whether or not Shakespeare’s portrayal of Othello is racist. One of the arguments to say that it is is the statistic that Iago has more lines – it is very rare in a Shax piece for an eponymous character to not speak the most words in his or her play. (Citation needed, but there ain’t gonna be one.)

Summary: Othello is about sexual jealousy and its manipulation. Othello, a Moor but a respected member of Venetian society, marries a beautiful younger woman, gets a nice job but passes over Iago for his second in command. Iago is enraged and decides to ruin Othello’s life, which he does by convincing him that his wife is cheating on him, playing on Othello’s fear that Desdemona regrets going against social norms and making an extra-racial marriage. Desdemona, a naive innocent, is a bit of a stereotype, but murdered by her husband who then discovers the plot and kills himself. Iago, a la Ernst Stavro Blofeld, does not die.

The play, like most Shakespeare, is under-edited, bloated and needs a little bit of work. But when the language is beautiful, it (of course) shines like the marvellous poetry it is. There are beautiful and evocative descriptions of desire and love, as well as arresting and impressive discourses on power, war, intoxication, gender and sexuality. Although Desdemona and Iago are both rather one-sided, there are plenty of rounded characters to flesh Othello out, and the central tragedy – jealousy (initially Iago’s, but swiftly everyone else’s) as destructive of the self and others, kinda holds up, particularly when read within the context of Renaissance tragedy.

Motives are explored and expressed, though don’t necessarily match up with the actions performed, but this is Shakespeare and thus picking out faults is ridiculous. It’s not perfect, of course it’s not, but it’s great: a man whose self-confidence is so wafer-thin (and his trust in others so inconsistent and uninformed) that he can be led to self-destruction is an intriguing tragic figure, and Shaxxyboy does it with aplomb.

This edition contained within it a few supplementary essays, some of which were trite, 1960s academese, but one of which was a glorious 17th century piece ripping the shit out of Othello due to its implied timescale of less than a week from start to finish. Which is great and kinda valid.

I enjoyed my first tussle with Shakespeare on the page in half a decade, but having seen a few on the stage and been a little bored, I think I’m willing to stick with the rash opinion I formulated after watching tens of appalling student productions of the guy’s work when an undergraduate, which follows:

Shakespeare is, in theory, great. There are speeches and scenes and maybe even whole acts within his plays that are amongst the best pieces of literature ever written, but all his works have flaws in them, and almost every single production – from the shittest GCSE one up to the fucking National Theatre – cannot bring to life every word the guy wrote. Shakespeare’s works contain beauty, but these are academic texts meant to be studied and poured over and thought about, not casually engaged with after a couple of gin and tonics in a theatre. Shakespeare’s plays are, yes, poetry, but they’re unfiltered and they’re never going to get better.

Leave Shakespeare for the undergraduates, leave Shakespeare for people with the time to underline the gorgeous bits and the lack of respect to skim through the crap ones. Don’t elevate his oeuvre, elevate some of the sonnets, Hamlet and Macbeth and maybe one of the ones I like, but don’t pretend PericlesThe Winter’s TaleTwo Gentlemen of Verona or any of about ten more aren’t tiresome medieval crap.

Shakespeare should be remembered as the writer of a handful of phenomenal plays and poems, not (as he often is) as the producer of a flawless oeuvre that reinvented Western literature. He was part of a process – a good part, a high point, but compared to Marlowe (who also never wrote a faultless play) he’s just another.

Rereading Othello was an interesting exercise, but nothing more. Feel free to disagree in the comments.


* As in sexual, not business. I use the word “partner” to keep the gender vague and thus try to imply there’s some cheeky ambiguity in my straight/white/middle class/male/university-educated/alcoholic persona. Possibly the history of mental health issues gives some kind of “outsider” interest to my personal narrative, but probably not because depression is soon middle class.

On that topic, I had a major panic attack this week. On Tuesday evening I found myself hyperventilating in a stranger’s doorway, face covered in tears and my lungs bursting like I was breathing in hot tar. It was deeply depressing, as I had thought that part of my life was over, but it was also quite helpful in reliving the stress and anxiety that had been  building for the previous few months. Like the inner peace that arrives after vomiting, pissing or shitting after an intense need, on this occasion having a loud panic attack – honking like a coming goose – really relaxed me. It gifted me a hopeful clarity (the direct opposite of the psychological response to orgasm) I’d been lacking, and I was able to continue with my pitiful and book-bare lifestyle for several days.

Further information: This panic attack occurred after I went 40 hours without consuming alcohol, rather shamefully the longest I’ve gone dry in about a calendar year. Fatigue, stress and withdrawal symptoms combined to give me a hellish half hour, but the let up afterwards, the genuine sense of joy, was the best physical feeling I’ve had in months. So, anyone else who has developed serious alcohol dependency as a result of stress, I highly recommend letting the horror build beyond the point of endurance: there is something the other side. Again, though, this other side contains recklessness, but is recklessness not the only model of behaviour that guarantees a sense of being alive? I.e. I had an encounter yesterday with a petty criminal that may result in me being physically assaulted. I’m not scared, but I feel like I should be, and I’m not even that worried about how not scared I am.

Life goes on, relentlessly, forever, with nothing to make it worthwhile except the awareness of its eventual end. Oh, mortality, the greatest Christmas gift of all.

** As in I’m not saying what gender she has, not that she identifies as both – she doesn’t. Ooh, I slipped. She is a female. How disappointing for my readers, another straightman. A lot of people say to me, since I shaved my head, that I “look gay”. Whatever that means…

*** You see what I mean about self-destructive behaviour and dependency? With addiction of any kind, one gets to the point where it is the first thing one thinks of whenever there is a spare moment. “I’ve got ten minutes – enough time for a half”; “I’m two minutes early to meet my friends, I’ll dive into this pub for a shot”; “I don’t want to sleep because I don’t want to wake up tomorrow so I’ll open another bottle of wine and start another film because sinking into the alcoholic blackness has something of death about it. Something of the descent, the sluggishness and the self-inflicted destruction.”

Regularly, it’s 1am and my girlfriend’s gone to bed. Why am I opening a bottle of wine? Because I have nothing to wake for tomorrow, nothing.

Drinking  – and intoxication itself – is no longer transcendental, it is destructive, an attack, an assault, on a body and a psychology that I is weak. Alcohol has become like water. Actually, I drink more booze than water, by volume.

Today, I’ve sat here typing this and had a couple of coffees and three glasses of water. I’m using my mind and my hands for what I want them to be used for, but the alcoholism and the general level of malaise means that all the fucking prose I’m producing – which, let’s remember, is all I want to be doing – is booze-sodden, self-indulgent, pointless and has the quite serious potential to damage any kind of professional reputation I may one day find myself wanting. Ha.

The Triumph of the Now represents a destruction of the future and often a repudation of the joys of my past; the present and its continued disappointments being all I recognise, and all I maintain.

I need to restart my Spanish classes. I need to write properly. I need to change change change change change turn and face the strain chu chu change-

And I’m ill.

**** Sorry, I couldn’t keep it up. Not that she ever reads my blog (hence why I’ve been off anti-depressants and out of therapy for so long – I think if she comprehended the level I’ve got to, she’d be frogmarching me to a doctor), but she would not be impressed if I called her an “it”.

***** Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all know where fur comes from.

****** That means I groom books on the internet, yeah, baby.

******* Didn’t buy but did take selfie:

Photo on 20-12-2015 at 17.58

******** I don’t know if I was projecting memories then or if I’m projecting memories now, but I am now seeing the same Ruth Rendall book on that shelf in Finland as my nan had on the table beside her as she was dying.

(This seems too ridiculous to be true, but let’s roll with it here and maybe try to incorporate it as a detail into some kind of peaceful novella about human emotion. Eurgh. A Lowryesque detail.)

4 comments on “Othello by William Shakespeare

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