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Yet despite the fact that the play's title is nothing but his name, Othello is arguably not really the central figure of the story. Iago is far more instrumental in moving the plot forward; it is his (not fully explained) hatred of Othello that the play is concerned with, and though Othello is obviously necessary as the object of Iago's hatred and jealousy, he takes a largely passive role in the bulk of the events as they unfold. It is Iago who truly effects the twisted and complex machinations that eventually lead to Desdemona's death and his own rather emasculating evisceration. Iago more time onstage and almost exactly the same number of lines as Othllo, making him a clear rival for the audience's attention. The tide begins to shift enormously in Iago's favors when his many soliloquies -- monologues generally delivered to the audience when no one else is present onstage -- are taken into account.
Something about hearing Iago's plans as a sort of confidant draws the audience into the play, and even seems to have the effect of making one not exactly root for Iago, but enjoy watching his progress perhaps more than we would like to admit. Shakespeare was always quite adept at creating entertaining and gripping villains who simply seem to drip with evil, and the Iago that emerges from a careful reading of the script is absolutely drenched in greed, ambition, and jealousy. The reader/audience member knows almost from the very start of the play that Iago is two-faced, and loathes his commander and supposed friend Othello. This makes the interactions between the two characters incredibly titillating, as we are able to perceive the layers of Iago's meaning.
The very first conversation in the play takes place between Iago and Roderigo, the latter of whom quickly becomes a pawn in the former's scheming, and gets straight to the point of Iago's jealousy and dislike for Othello. Iago has several longer speeches in this scene, but it is the first speech which is truly expository and yet raises some major questions about the central conflict of the play. In this speech, Iago outlines how he should have been preferred for advancement in Othello's army, but that despite the recommendations of several noblemen and his own record of service, he is passed over for the younger and less experienced Michael Cassio: "Now, sir, be judge yourself, / Whether I in any just term am affined / To love the Moor." (I. i. 38-40). This speech to Roderigo suggests that Iago's main reason fro disliking Othello is a mixture of indignation at being passed over for a promotion he felt was rightly his, in addition to jealousy of Othello's power to choose and act how he pleases. Other speeches in the play, however, propose other motives for Iago's actions and his extreme hatred of the Moor, which could suggest that he is being at least slightly disingenuous with Roderigo by supplying him with a more practical reason for acting on his hatred.
The other reasons that Iago has for hating Othello are certainly less practical, yet for this they are perhaps quicker to stoke Iago's temper and will to violence. In a later scene between he and Roderigo, as well as in other instances during the play, Iago hints that it is Othello's status as a Moor (and therefore his race and color) that at least in part makes leads to his hatred of his commander. Speaking of Desdemona (whom Roderigo also loves), Iago says "Her eye must be fed; and what delight shall she have to look on the devil?... very nature will instruct her in it and compel her to some second choice" (II. i. 239-47). This could be a tactic to increase Roderigo's anger against Othello, but it also shows Iago's irrational hatred of the Moor.
Yet Iago is essentially a rational character; except for the passion of his hatred, everything he does is carefully reasoned and calculated. This is shown most clearly in his soliloquies, in which he outlines his thinking and his plans for the audience/reader. The film does an excellent job of capturing this element of Iago's character and Shakespeare's play. It has become more and more acceptable again in theatre for an actor to speak directly to the audience (the standard mode of delivery for much of theatrical history, including in Shakespeare's day), but films rarely have actors addressing the audiences by speaking directly into the camera. This is exactly what Oliver Parker has Kenneth Branagh do for certain of Iago's speeches in his version of Othello, and the effect is to draw the viewer into Iago's plans.
Branagh's charismatic portrayal of the villain also helps to establish the strange yet very apparent feeling of camaraderie between Iago and the audience, but it is truly the cinematic techniques that Parker employs that drive this relationship home. In one of Iago's ore well-known and most deliciously evil soliloquies, which falls towards the end of Act II, scene iii, Parker has the camera following Iago as he slowly strolls through a courtyard at night. Branagh speaks into the camera -- and therefore directly at the audience -- as if it is a close and intimate friend with whom he is sharing his plans. This interpretation could be used onstage, but somehow the monologue reads as more exclamatory off the page. Film has the ability, in many ways, to provide more intimacy than theatre, such that even fourteen years after this film was released it still feels as though the viewer is becoming complicit with Iago in the present action, and though Iago never explains himself it feels almost as though we can understand him here.
Another subtle but interesting device that Parker uses in this scene is his use of light. In both theatre and film, lighting is of prime importance not only in literally illuminating the scene and rendering things visible, but also in setting the mood and often providing symbolic commentary on the action. As Iago strolls through the courtyard with his friend the camera, the only visible sources of light are a few distant torches that continue to pass through the frame punctuated by even deeper darkness. On a superficial level, this reflects Iago's subterfuge and the darkness of his character. At the same time, the warm light of the torches and the soft gray of the stone in the background make the scene more inviting than it otherwise might be, aiding in the feeling of connection and even sympathy between Iago and the audience.
Iago is also heading towards a larger fire as he slowly paces along, though this is not known until he arrives and the glow from it is seen on his face. The effect of this is almost paradoxical in the different ways it can be interpreted. On one hand, it emphasizes the feeling of warmth towards Iago even more strongly than the distant torchlight. The torches never actually illuminate Iago; he is in shadow until right next to the fire. The warm glow of the fire and the essentially human way he holds his hands up to the flames increase the viewer's sympathy with this character. At the same time, the fire is never seen -- it provides all of these effects from just out of the frame. The fact that the fire is hidden suggests that its source might be something more sinister than a simple fire, and hints at the prospect of Hell that awaits Iago.
Religious concepts such as God, Heaven, and Hell are not invoked too often in Shakespeare's script, but such mentions are of great importance when they do occur. In the final scene of the play, after Othello has released his jealous rage and Desdemona has been killed, and others -- including Iago and his wife Emilia -- have entered the room, such words begin to appear rather often, usually in Emilia's mouth. Her consistent use of divine imagery, specifically her repetition of the word "heaven," contrasts sharply with Iago's (and, unwittingly, Othello's and even her own) hellish acts; the film, in its suggestion of hell, is perhaps mirroring a strain of juxtaposition and contrast already found in the script. This takes place not just with the use of fire and thoughts of heaven and hell, but in the larger themes of the play and film as well. The issue of race plays out somewhat ironically when Othello acts as apparently savagely as people of his color are suspected of being. Though most of the play and dialogue is devoted to Othello's fairness and open, friendly ways that seem to contradict the notions regarding his race, his final acts of violence seem to confirm them. The relationship between love and…[continue]
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