While preparing for Othello rehearsals to begin this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about doubles. Othello is rife with doubles: juxtapositions of black and white, virgin and whore, male and female, Christian and heathen. The ultimate tragic irony of the play is that the characters who are unable to accept the dichotomies in their own nature are doomed to die, while Iago—Shakespeare’s ultimate double-sided villain—survives through the end of the play.
Jealousy is often seen as Othello’s central tragic flaw, but I believe Othello’s inability to accept his own contradictory nature is what truly leads him to murder Desdemona and take his own life. Othello is acutely aware of the fact that others view him as barbaric, an “extravagant and wheeling stranger, “and believes he must at all times act the part of the level-headed, honorable Christian Venetian. His insecurity, his desire to control his emotions, is what makes him such easy prey to Iago. Iago, on the other hand, is fully at ease with his own double-sided nature and can accept and justify his villainous thoughts simply: “I am not what I am.”
Likewise, Desdemona’s death is a direct result of her sincere need to preserve her honesty and obedience. She cannot imagine being anything but an honest wife. As she tells Iago, “I cannot say 'whore:' It does abhor me now I speak the word.” She cherishes obedience above all else, even when her husband is unfairly accusing her, to the point that when asked who killed her she responds, “Nobody; I myself.” If only Desdemona could accept the capacity to commit infidelity, like her handmaid Emilia, perhaps she would be better equipped to communicate her own innocence.
In our production of Othello, we are focusing on the juxtaposition of male and female as opposing forces in addition to the contrast of light and dark. The qualities that lead to Othello’s demise—rage, jealousy, and anger—are often thought of as inherently masculine, while Desdemona’s characteristics—obedience, chastity, and modesty—are often idealized as the ultimate feminine traits. Iago’s mastery of manipulation through word, coupled with his military and physical prowess puts him in a unique position; he is able to accept masculine and feminine characteristics in himself and use them both to his advantage. By having all of the male roles played by women, we are asking the audience to confront their own assumptions about gender and recognize the masculine and feminine attributes in all of the characters in Othello.
I can’t wait to start rehearsals and see what these unique, intelligent women bring to the table and how the actors in the space will give shape and nuance to these contrasts in the text. And, of course, to see how doing two plays in repertory will highlight the contrasts in the world of Othello. Above all, I can’t wait to share this collaborative process with you: the audience!