Tragedy in Oliver Parker’s Film Rendition of Shakespeare’s Othello

Tragedy in Oliver Parker’s Film Rendition of Shakespeare’s Othello

The original Shakespeare’s play Othello is based on rather insubstantial plotlines and unconvincing plot twists - Tragedy in Oliver Parker’s Film Rendition of Shakespeare’s Othello introduction. After all, it is very difficult to believe that a man could cold-bloodedly murder the love of his life, his new bride, just because he finds her handkerchief with some other man whom he has begun to suspect of having an affair with her. The play’s eponymous protagonist, the noble moor Othello, does not seem to have anything very noble about him. In spite of being a prominent army general, he proves himself to most abjectly gullible all the way, and jealous to the point of nausea. The essence of this tragedy does not lie in the cruelty of fate, as it is the case in many great tragedies, nor in the diabolical cunning of the villain, but in the puerile foolishness of its protagonist.

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On first impressions it would seem like Iago is running the whole show, continuously contriving clever and nasty schemes to bring about the fall of Othello, his master. But there is nothing too clever about Iago’s schemes; that they work at all is owing to the fact that Othello turns out to be such a helpless puppet in his hands, being led exactly wherever Iago wants him to go, as if he had no will or intelligence of his own. If this story was written by any other person, it would have been most ingloriously forgotten. But the glory of Othello does not lie in the content of its mediocre story featuring a miserably clueless hero, but in Shakespeare’s powerful language and style. The effect comes not through what Shakespeare is telling, but through how he is telling it.

It is a tribute to Shakespeare’s poetic creativity that Othello has continued to impact its readers or the play’s audience down the centuries. However, film being chiefly a visual medium, the lack of a moving or a meaningful storyline must have been the fundamental problem that director Oliver Parker had to contend with when contemplating a contemporary film rendition of this famous Shakespearean drama. Just in the way many of today’s big-budgeted action movies are carried off purely by virtue of their special effects and high-octane action sequences, though crucially lacking a tenable storyline, Shakespeare pulls off his play purely by virtue of his explosive dialogues (and in this case, also Iago’s wicked asides to the audience about his oh-so-evil schemes). We can imagine how flat a special-effects action film would fall if it were rendered into a simple stage play; similarly, a play like Othello that has poetic style but no intrinsic substance to it, is bound to lose much of its allure when translated into film medium. Thus, there are intrinsic limitations to a movie adaptation of this play.

Primarily, Oliver Parker had to truncate the story to a reasonable movie length, and in so doing he was forced to cut off over 50% of the original dialogues. Sometimes it may seem like he has retained only the famous dialogues of the play and has done away with the rest. Oliver parker nevertheless manages the abridgement adeptly, and his streamlined narrative is easy to follow. However, because of the emphasis on the story and action, instead of dialogue, the weaknesses of the original play get magnified in the movie version.

To begin with, we do not understand what the motivation of the villain Iago is (if indeed he is the villain and not Othello himself). Why does Iago bear such implacable grudge against his master Othello that he not only wants to bring ruin and destruction upon him but upon people associated with him too? And how come Othello does not have the least clue of Iago’s hell-bent animosity towards him, and instead believes him to be a most loyal aide? The only reason that can be gathered from the play is that Iago is passed over for promotion by Othello who favors his other right-hand man, Cassio, to Iago. But this seems to be the flimsiest of excuses on which to base an entire tragedy.

Iago comes off as a cool-headed, rational and calculative character, in sharp contrast to muddle-headed, emotionally overcharged Othello who is a victim to his own “dark” delusions; but what would Iago stand to gain in the end if he got rid of Othello? Would it not be acutely disadvantageous to his own ends if he lost a firm pillar of support in his influential master? Also, Iago would have been quite aware of what kind of risks he was running in implementing his base schemes. Should he get caught, he would meet the same fate as Desdemona. He indeed gets caught after Desdemona’s death, and though he manages to escape the lethal fury of Othello, is held captive soon thereafter and is marked for execution. So, why would Iago risk his own life in order to destroy his master? In the absence of a basic motive to drive the machinations of Iago, all the events in the play seem to be result of pure contrivance, not of the villain but of the author.

 It is very essential for a tragedy to work that we the audience are able to identify deeply with the central characters of the story. But it is impossible to identify with Othello, for leave alone being a hero, he is not even a normal human being. It is impossible even to identify with the antagonist, for we do not understand what his motivations are, why he is making so much fuss, and why cannot he just let go? Iago repeatedly tries to take audience to his side by talking directly to them and explaining to them his plans. But this stage maneuver comes off simply as being silly, because we do not feel connected to Iago in any way. We couldn’t care less for both of these main characters, but Desdemona happens to be only true victim in this story. She is the only character whom we can identify with a little in this entire drama.

Unknowingly, Desdemona married an insanely jealous and homicidal maniac, and pays the price for it with her life. Her fate is sealed when she married Othello, not knowing his true nature. Even if Iago did not exist at all, any small real or imaginary mistake on Desdemona’s part could have triggered Othello’s resistless fury, which would have destroyed her. She was bound to die sooner or later in the hands of Othello. So this play is a tragedy in some way, but not a tragedy big enough or intriguing enough to awe us. People marry wrong people all the time and suffer for it, so what’s the big deal?

If the element of tragedy does not work in the original play itself, it works even less in the movie. Laurence Fishburne who plays Othello seems tragedy-stricken, heavy and brooding, from the beginning. If the life of a miserable character is cut short, we do feel sorry for it; we can only feel for it if the lives of happy persons or persons with some great potential are destroyed.  Laurence Fishburne’s fretting and fuming, though he is only faithfully sticking to his role, does not make him any more likeable either. Irene Jacob, though she is a foreign actress and is not comfortable with Shakespearean dialogues, is a saving grace — but not by far. Kenneth Branagh, as Iago, plays his role with consummate ease — but to what purpose? In the end the movie does not move us in the way it is supposed to, although it may impress us in many other ways, especially in the visual style of the director.

However, this is not really the movie’s or the director’s fault. Like a real tragedy, this movie was doomed before it was made. A great tragedy should have a sense of inevitability to it. That is to say, people try their best, and despite all their efforts, they fail, as if destiny were conspiring against them. This is what is most conspicuously lacking in Othello. Othello does not try at all, he is just passively led wherever his inner impulses and outer circumstances lead him. All the decisive actions in this play are eminently evitable, if only either Othello or Iago knew what they were doing and why they were doing. In the movie, the proceedings become even more tedious. But that was almost inevitable. The best efforts of the director could not have rescued them movie, unless, of course, he took some drastic step such as changing the tragedy into a comedy — which could have been real fun.


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