I am convinced it is impossible to fully appreciate Shakespeare's Otello unless you have lived in Venice, and participated in its intrigues and schemes. The method Iago uses -- outright lies and kernels of truth -- while wearing a mask of devotion and honesty, is a strategy that is Veneziano D.O.C. Iago twists a noble Moor, loyal to the Venetian Republic, into such a frenzy that Otello kills his wife, Desdemona. Talk about mind games!
Marta Richeldi as Desdemona and Sebastiano Lo Monaco as Otello
Otello is a brilliant play; one of my favorites. I studied Shakespeare at the National Shakespeare Company in New York City, long, long ago, back when I was a struggling actress. For those of you not familiar with the play, I would suggest Googling it, and reading up on it. I just read Wikipedia. Again, I am no expert, but, as when I wrote the blog about Titian, I believe we are all entitled to our opinion. So, here goes.
Although Othello is noble, he is a Moor and he is black. It doesn't matter what kind of black; he is darker than anyone else. Desdemona is a white Venetian noblewoman. No one can possibly believe that these two would ever fall in love. The Venetian Senate is convinced that Othello used magic or witchcraft to make that happen. Speaking from personal experience, this kind of system still exists in Venice today:) In any event, the two of them manage to convince everyone that they are truly in love, and the marriage is approved. Off they go to Cyprus, where Othello is going to handle the Turks for the Venetian Republic.
Now, perhaps, Othello's loyalties should have been with the Turks, not the Venetians, but he has already proven his loyalty to the Republic time and time again. In Verdi's opera, he is an ex-Muslim mercenary who has converted to Christianity. (To this day in Venice, some people speak about the ancient battles with the Turks like it was yesterday.) In any event, Othello, no matter how loyal, is still an outsider. I can relate to him because no matter how much I may disapprove of my country's behavior, I am still an American, and an outsider.
In fact, I can relate both to Desdemona and Othello. I have always believed -- in fact, it is one of my mottos -- "Love is so powerful it always wins. Truth is so powerful it always wins. All it takes is Time." Here we have poor Desdemona who, although a little flirty, is absolutely loyal and loving to Othello, and she ends up dead by his hands. Othello, when he finds out the truth, kills himself. What kind of message is that?Sebastiano Lo Monaco as Otello and Marta Richeldi as Desdemona
Which brings us to Iago. Ah, Iago. Here is a very Venetian character. It is impossible to describe the web you can get tangled in when you encounter a Iago in Venice. These characters are not human. They mouth the words of compassion. They mouth the words of truth. But it is all false; they are hollow shells, robots, posing as human beings. They do not have the capacity for love or empathy. Because they do not, they cannot comprehend anyone acting out of love. All their actions are inspired by jealousy, or envy, or greed, or revenge. I have encountered more than one Iago since I have lived in Venice -- both male and female. (The females are the worst -- none of whom have been Venetian, but foreigners who have made Venice their home.) There are Iagos in America, too -- some even in my own family(!) -- but compared to Iagos in Venice, they are babies. Perhaps I am fortunate to have Iagos in my own family because I am a Professional Iago Spotter, which allows me to survive. Even so, to actually experience the black cloud that twists every innocent thought and loving action into a dark insect -- it's psychological warfare -- I totally sympathized with Othello as he grabbed his head, trying to rattle out a piece of sanity.
To watch Otello in Venice is sort of surreal (I know I am using that word a lot lately, but with all the changes going on around here, worlds are colliding). It is reality many times removed, yet it is reality itself. It is Shakespeare -- English -- yet set in Venice, then Cyprus, and the language the actors speak at the Goldoni is Italian. So, it is an English play written about Venice performed in Venice and translated from the English into Italian. The actors on stage are playing Venetians, but they are not Venetians -- yet they are performing in front of Venetians. And THEN to actually live in Venice while watching this play... there was a Venetian backdrop on the stage that I can walk downstairs and see in my present reality at this very moment... this, too, is something that can explode your mind -- especially because this play was written 400 years ago! Well, folks, I am here to tell you that not much has changed in Venice over the centuries. Maybe the Republic does not exist in this space and time, but sometimes you feel that the Republic is still meeting every day in the shadows of another dimension.
Anyway, what's it all about, Alfie? I am a big fan of Carl Jung. Here we have Otello, a black man, a shadow. Outside, he is black, but, inside, he is white. And we have Desdemona, the anima of Otello, who is a pure, white, noblewoman. A man projects onto a woman his inner female, so there is a Desdomona inside Otello.
Then we've got Iago. On Wikipedia, I just read that some scholars have interpreted this character as part of a frustrated homosexual love affair. Well, I think we all are bisexual in the sense that there is a female inside the male, and a male inside the female. Is Iago in love with Otello? Otello believes Iago -- who is a liar and an expert manipulator -- not his honest, loyal wife, Desdemona. Why? Doesn't Otello feel worthy of Desdemona's love? Personally, I think this is the case. Otello cannot believe that this beautiful noblewoman actually loves him. He thinks she has other motives. So, when Iago bombards him with evil thoughts, Otello does not listen to his heart. He listens to a lying, blackmailing manipulator. He gets worked up to such an extent about ABSOLUTELY NOTHING that he kills Desdemona! Based on ABSOLUTELY NOTHING except Iago's manipulation of the truth (and the other characters' silence), this noble Moor kills the only creature who ever loved him. And you think, how can you be that stupid? Because, in Otello, Shakespeare allows the audience to be privy to Iago's character, but not Otello! Otello, and all the other characters, think Iago is the good guy! Much like life.
Sebastiano Lo Monaco as Otello and Massimiliano Vado as Iago
Should we get into why Desdomona falls in love with a big, powerful black nobleman? She tells her father that although she respects him, she is now the wife of the Moor. What about her animus? Maybe Daddy has not done such a good job of protecting Desdemona... maybe Daddy is not enough of a stallion. And where is Desdemona's mother? Hhhhmmmm?
If you think these things don't happen nowadays, let us remember O.J. and Nicole Simpson, an American hero that now is an American tragic figure. When I was growing up, O.J. could do no wrong. In fact, the ending of the O.J. story is closer to the original story upon which Shakespeare based Otello, a story that Cinzio wrote back in the 1500s, in which the Iago character and the Otello character trot off after he kills Desdemona.
Living on the level of a Shakespearian tragedy or comedy takes some juggling, but I think that's what life is about -- another reason why I live in Venice. I also studied theatre with Stella Adler, and she would yell, "Darling! What are you doing? If you don't have any energy, then get off the stage and die!"
In any event, I want to let you know that it is possible to see all these things when you come to Venice. You do not have to walk around aimlessly like sheep -- make a plan! La Fenice, the opera house, is ten minutes from Rialto by foot. The Goldoni Theatre is five minutes away. I can walk downstairs and see a Titian in the Church of San Giovanni Elemosinario. There is always something going on here -- always. It's all right here -- just scratch under the surface and all the Answers to Life are here. Don't wait for the tour books to tell you what to do. Search on the Internet. Make some intelligent choices and eat the feast that Venice still offers. If you do not, these things will disappear, and you will be left with only Las Vegas Venice. The Goldoni theatre is STILL REAL. Go over there and make an effort to watch some Italian theatre, even though it may feel strange to you; even if you do not understand the language. They perform enough plays that are also in English, you can read them first, and then go watch the show.
A big THANK YOU to the folks at the Teatro Goldoni for giving me a thought-provoking evening -- as a matter of fact, they are in the Acknowledgments of HARLEY'S NINTH. And I will give myself a plug -- if you read my book, which is written very simply, you can understand a bit more about theater itself, and how very, very important it is for human survival.
Ciao from Venice,
P.S. It is also nice to have the theatre from Sicily visit the theatre in Venice!
Sebastiano Lo Monaco
by William Shakespeare
translated by Masolino d'Amico
directed by Roberto Guicciardini
with Maria Rosaria Carli, Massimiliano Vado, Alkis Zanis, and with Marta Richeldi in the role of Desdemona
February 20-24, 2008
Please click on the headline to visit the website of the Teatro Stabile del Veneto