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Othello, The Moor of Venice

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by th' nose
As asses are.
--Iago, II, i, 405-408

Thus Iago, seeking revenge for Othello's promotion of Cassio to lieutenant, a post to which he aspires, begins the most devious series of deceptions in the canon (with the possible exception of Richard III).

Peter Mason as Othello
Peter Mason as Othello
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
As is the case throughout his work, the playwright explores his premise through parallel subplots representing every societal caste, with Iago alternately deceiving his commander Othello, his comrade-in-arms Cassio, the gentleman Roderigo, his wife Emilia, and anyone else who lies in the path of his destructive agenda. Additionally, the play has strong anti-Spanish understones (Iago is the patron saint of Spain) to persuade Queen Elizabeth to abandon marriage plans with the Catholics.

While this is Othello's (Peter Macon) tragedy, it is played out entirely in Iago's (Geoffrey Kent) world, a dystopia in which everyone presumes him honest until the end, thus enabling him to manipulate events and present his warped view of so-called "human nature."

Geoffrey Kent as Iago
Geoffrey Kent as Iago
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Director Lisa Wolpe has Kent play this out naturalistically—avoiding the melodrama trap—and what an excellent choice this is, as Kent makes it look easy (Iago speaks 1097 lines, more than Othello and more than any non-title character in the canon, save for Falstaff, if Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, are combined), leveraging his considerable charisma to bring the audience into the "honest" and disarmingly friendly Iago's confidence. We may despise the scumbag, but Kent's characterization is fascinating, and we're rapt for the entire three-hour (including intermission) ride.

Yet, the overriding tragedy of Othello remains the throughline, and is amplified by the stature and power that Macon brings to the role, literally, with a stirring, Stentorian, basso profundo, and figuratively, with a physical presence that clearly defines the Venetian general as the leading warrior of the army. All this provides powerful lift for Macon's emotional fireworks that drive the plot and provide a striking contrast to Kent's insinuating and calculating Iago.

Rodney Lizcano as Roderigo
Rodney Lizcano as Roderigo
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Cassio (Peter Simon Hilton) and Roderigo (Rodney Lizcano) also suffer at Iago's hands. Hilton captures the refined nature of the Florentine Cassio (modeled on the real-life Sir Philip Sidney), while Lizcano (in a gorgeous outfit by Hugh Hanson), is the central comedic element as he waxes from lovelorn to ridiculous, while getting wholly gulled and fleeced by Iago.

Vanessa Morosco as Emilia and Geoffrey Kent as Iago
Vanessa Morosco as Emilia
and Geoffrey Kent as Iago
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Despite their victimization, Desdamona (Laura Baranik) and Emilia (Vanessa Morosco) are strong figures, Desdamona for breaking with her father as well as her fidelity and guilessness, and Emilia for her awakening and forthcoming honesty, standing against her husband, Iago. Baranik and Macon light up the thermometer early on, which intensifies the emotional arc as their characters' relationship is poisoned by Iago. In many ways, Emilia's growth, from a subservient wife to a righteous witness is the most significant shift (other than Othello) in the play, with Morosco taking the bull by the horns in the well-staged final scene.

Anne Sandoe as the Dutchess of Venice
Anne Sandoe as the Dutchess of Venice
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Volpe chooses to supplant the role of the Duke with the Dutchess of Venice (Anne Sandoe), an odd choice given that, from the 7th to the 18th Century, Venice was ruled by Dukes; however, perhaps this is a stand-in for Volpe's position that the Dutchess of Pembroke was the playwright using the pen name Shake-speare (she's half right—it was a pen name, and the family did publish the first folio, as Susan de Vere, who married one of the Dutchess' sons, was in possession of the "true and original copies"; also, the Dutchess is on record as writing that "Shakespeare" is someone other than herself1); however, this seemingly gratuitous gender juxtaposition, in a production that otherwise would be described as traditional, is more than justified by the Dutchess' magnificent dress (Hanson) and Sandoe's regal command.

Geoffrey Kent as Iago and Peter Macon as Othello
Geoffrey Kent as Iago
and Peter Macon as Othello
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Other innovative and at times stunning direction by Volpe is evident throughout, including: an introductory scene, which precedes the playwright's script, that impressively sets the stage for Iago's opening rant and makes the lieutenant's badge a key marker; the staging of the scene in which Iago, standing upstage, gains complete psychological control over Othello, standing downstage immediately below Iago; and the scene in which Othello obsesses over the missing handkerchief, accompanied by a surreal, imaginary dance sequence of a handkerchief-wielding ensemble.

As is the case with the entire canon, Othello is rife with biographical references. As we've noted many times on this site, the play is one of five that features a scenario in which a husband incorrectly suspects his wife of infidelity, all this stemming from a real-life issue that Edward de Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford) had with his wife, Anne Cecil, daughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth's chief of state for almost her entire reign.

Geoffrey Kent as Iago and Peter Simon Hilton as Cassio
Geoffrey Kent as Iago
and Peter Simon Hilton as Cassio
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
De Vere's jealousy was aroused by his servant Rowland Yorke, one of the most venomous traiters in English history, who twice attempted to sell out Protestant armies (England and the Netherlands) to Catholic forces (during the Northern Uprisings and the wars in the Lowlands). From the time that this story was first performed for court at Whitehall (Shrove Tuesday, March 3, 1579), as "A Moor's Masque," until well after de Vere's death, including the publication of the First Folio ("according to the true and original copies") and other anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic instruments, de Vere and his heirs needed to protect the identity of the author from attribution.2

Othello was resurrected by de Vere's family in 1622 to counter the proposed marriage ties between King James and Spain. Had the Spanish marriage gone through, the rest of the unpublished plays of a Protestant, Tudor apologist (de Vere) would never have seen the light of day.

These concerns were in addition to the general protocols of the old nobility (nobili vecchi), including the prohibition of publishing literary works, as prescribed by Baldasere Castiglione in "The Courtier," views to which de Vere was a well-known subscriber.

It was Yorke and his brother, Edward, likely in the employ of the Earl of Leister (a Catholic sympathsizer), who worked diligently to undermine the Cecils and the de Veres. During the trying period when de Vere first questioned the paternity of Anne's first child and refused to live with her, Burghley (who only recently had been raised to the peerage by Elizabeth—a very rare honor) wrote to de Vere:

"The greatest possession that any man can have is honor, good name, good will of many and of the best sort."
De Vere, as he so often did with Burghley's aphorisms (e.g., Polonius' famous advice to Laertes, "To thine own self be true," "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," etc.), turned his father-in-law's thoughts into dramatic fodder:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash, 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
--Iago, III, iii, 155-161

Laura Baranik as Desdamona and Peter Macon as Othello
Laura Baranik as Desdamona
and Peter Macon as Othello
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
De Vere's suspicions were more than whims. A March, 1575 letter from the queen's physician, Richard Master, to Burghley records that a distraught Anne had tried unsuccessfully to get the doctor to perform an abortion on her a week after her husband's departure for Italy. He notes that on telling Anne she should be gladsome and rejoice, she cries, "Alas, alas! How should I rejoice, seeing he that should rejoice with me is not here, and to say truth, [I] stand in doubt whether he pass [judgment] upon me and it [the pregnancy] or not."3

William Camden, a 17th Century antiquarian, notes that Yorke "... brought into England that bold and dangerous way of foining (thrusting) with the rapier in dueling."4 Iago brags that he had often "yerk'd ... (opponents) under the ribs." (I, ii, 5)

Yorke died in 1588, reportedly by Spanish poison. Dutch patriots, still angry at his treachery, later exhumed his body and hung it like a scarecrow.

Much of Iago's oratorical legerdemain (as well as all other fine-tuned persuasion in the canon) is drawn from de Vere's training in law at Grays Inn, plus his having experienced the sophistry of the law first hand, when he, a 17-year old scholar, narrowly escaped from a death sentence for killing a servant during a fencing mishap (an experience that de Vere drew upon to mock the law, most notably regarding Ophelia's suicide). De Vere was adept in constructing sophisticated arguments that could turn others' opinions, even regarding the most heinous behaviors.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Othello runs through August 8th, in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, and the Bard-oriented comedy Wittenberg. For tickets: 303-492-8008 or http://www.coloradoshakes.org/tickets.

Bob Bows

Footnotes:
1 In August, 1603, the dowager Countess of Pembroke (Herbert) writes to her son to bring the King with him to her home, Wilton House, where As You Like It is about to be performed. "... we have the man 'Shakespeare' with us." (Mark Anderson, 'Shakespeare' By Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 353)

2 The King's Men's playwright Ben Jonson, a friend to the Herberts (the famous literary family into which de Vere's third daughter, Susan, had married) and to Henry de Vere (de Vere's son), was hired to edit and oversee the Folio, which in its prefactory material makes only one passing reference to the King, yet heaps praise upon two vociferous opponents of the Spanish Marriage, the Earls of Pembroke (Susan de Vere's husband) and Montgomery (her brother-in-law).

Luckily, the negotiations over the marriage collapsed in September, 1623. A majority of Londoners celebrated, with bonfires in the streets, as if the Armada had been defeated once again. By December, the first folio was pubished and the first copies sold. Ibid, p. 377.

3 Ibid, pp. 118-19.

4 Ibid, p. 115.

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