Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Minute to Learn, a Lifetime to Master


            We did it.

            Shakespeare wrote a hit play and I read it.

            We did it.


            It’s Othello. It’s a damn masterpiece. It's a seminal work of western literature. And what insights does this kid from Wisconsin have to lay before you today?

            First off, there’s the obligatory contrasting to be done between Iago and Popeye:



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. (1:1 bolding is mine)



And I got a lotta muscle and I only gots one eye,

And I'll never hurt nobodies and I'll never tell a lie,

Top to me bottom and me bottom to me top,

That's the way it is 'til the day that I drop, what am I?

I yam what I yam! (Popeye, 1980 bolding is mine)


            Iago’s a good villain, but if he tried to outsmart Popeye and convince him that Olive Oyl was cheating on him, Popeye wouldn’t buy it. He’d eat some spinach and punch Iago so hard that his eyes would turn to Xs and his tongue would loll out of his mouth like a dead tapeworm. I suppose they would cast Bluto as Iago, which would be the best casting choice since Vince Vaughn played Norman Bates.

            Secondly, I want to address Othello’s attitude toward the murder of his wife. He has this line that disturbs me a little. He says to Lodovico:


An honorable murderer, if you will.

For naught did I in hate, but all in honor. (5:2)


Did Othello believe in honor killings? That it was his duty to kill Desdemona when he believed she had cheated on him, because she spoiled her honor and his by affiliation?

I don’t want to get into a big discussion about religion and honor killings and if Moor is really a geographic descriptor or a religious one. Besides, I checked out a copy of Laurence Olivier playing Othello and he was painted blue and he wore a giant cross on his chest. So my current conclusion is that Christian Smurfs believe in honor killings.

But I think even that theory could be debunked because Othello has been driven MAD by Iago’s conniving:


Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me

For making him egregiously an ass

And practicing upon his peace and quiet

Even to madness. (2:1)


            Any logic he employs after falling victim to these mindgames is the logic of a madman. (Which accurately describes logic employed by anyone who thinks honor killings are okay as well).

Finally, I want to talk about the Parker Brothers board game “Othello” and how despite being fun and excellent, it’s the dumb American version of “Go.” My cousin Erick has spent a couple of years learning to play “Go” and he tries to teach me every Christmas. We go have a bottomless cup of coffee at Common Grounds, which looks out over the harbor in Kenosha. Snow falls and as the sun sets the world turns blue like a Thomas Kinkade painting. 

We talk about how we used to play soccer together. We’d go down to Kemper Center and serve up crosses to one another and spend hours and hours trying to score headers and bicycle kicks. Then we’d sit in the grass and look out at Lake Michigan, sparkling and flat on the warm days, or churning, wild and steely on the blustery ones.

“Go” is a very different game than “Othello.” “Go” is played on a larger board, and when your pieces are captured, they can never be retaken. “Go” is more elegant-looking and at the same time endlessly more complex. When you do well at “Go,” you win large open spaces on the board and it’s called creating Life.

Ironically the movie Go is nowhere near as complex as the play Othello. One is about wicked manipulation and jealous rage leading to murder, it’s rife with racism and human weakness and honesty. The other is about taking Ecstasy, raving and going to Vegas.

           So, perhaps it’s best I take a lesson from Iago, and cut my insights into Othello short here before I prove myself the dumb American version of something more elegant and complex across either pond. I quote Iago’s somewhat unsettling final line:


Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.

From this time forth, I never will speak word. (5:2)


  1. "Go," the movie, does have Taye Diggs -- who would probably make a pretty mean Othello. Come to think of it, he'd make a pretty mean "Kung Fu Othello." A martial-arts fighting, honor-killing badass!

  2. "...Christian Smurfs believe in honor killings." Awesome.