When I was in high school, I had to read several of Shakespeare’s plays for class. We read Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet; Macbeth; Julius Caesar and my favorite was Othello. This is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies and follows the ill-fated story of the titular character, a Moorish general serving the Duke of Venice who elopes with the beautiful Desdemona. Iago, a soldier who is bitter that Othello did not name him as his lieutenant, conspires to bring about the general’s downfall.
Of the Shakespeare works I’ve read, Othello is one of my favorites. Iago is a truly despicable villain, made more so by the fact that up until the final moments of the play, nobody realizes what he’s done and calls him “honest Iago.” The play has been adapted to film in English several times, but I think the best example is the 1965 film starring Laurence Olivier in the title role. The main cast is as follows:
- Othello: Laurence Olivier
- Desdemona: Maggie Smith (aka Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter)
- Iago: Frank Finlay
- Emilia (Iago’s wife): Joyce Redman
- Michael Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant: Derek Jacobi (in his screen debut)
- Robert Lang: Roderigo, a Venetian nobleman who wants to marry Desdemona even though her father already said no several times.
The first thing we must talk about in this version of the play is Olivier’s portrayal of the character. Controversially, remember this was the mid-1960s and the Civil Rights era was in full swing in the United States, Olivier plays the character in blackface from head to toe and also adopts a deep, booming voice. It seems shocking that an actor as well regarded as Laurence Olivier would do this, but in truth no offense was intended (though it would certainly not happen if the film were being made today). Actually, up until the 1990s, there was a long tradition (going back to the 1600s) of actors “blacking up” in order to play the Moorish general (this is because most interpreted “Moorish” to mean African and therefore dark skinned). This is not like some blackface that mocks Africans; Olivier plays it completely straight. Please don’t let this turn you off from watching this version of the play, Olivier’s performance is one for the ages (he earned an Oscar nomination for it).
In the story, after it’s revealed that Othello and Desdemona have eloped (to the shame and outrage of her father Brabantio), the Duke sends the general to Cyprus in order to deal with a Turkish fleet that is threatening the area. Desdemona accompanies him, as does Iago, Emilia and Michael Cassio, whom the aforementioned Iago is determined to ruin so that he might be lieutenant instead.
Manipulation is a big part of the story, particularly how Iago manipulates Othello to believe things that the audience knows are simply not true. For example, Iago begins by getting Cassio drunk and then has him purposefully provoked, knowing how the lieutenant will retaliate. He then spreads a lie that Cassio is like this often, and given the spectacle Cassio makes, Othello dismisses him from his service. But it gets worse: Iago then contrives to have his wife steal one of Desdemona’s handkerchiefs (one that her husband gave her) and ensures that it finds its way to Cassio’s hands. He ends up giving it to his mistress Bianca, but Iago tells Othello that it came straight from Desdemona’s hands, leading the general to believe that his faithful wife is sleeping with Cassio!
Iago is completely sure of himself for most of the story; he actually reminds me of Littlefinger in Game of Thrones. He manipulates everyone so well that no one realizes his connection to what has happened until the very end, when his wife puts two and two together and realizes Iago started everything. You will love Frank Finlay’s performance as Iago, he seems to be everywhere throughout the story (only Olivier has more screen time than he does).
This being a tragedy, it is no surprise when I say that Othello, Desdemona and Emilia end up dead. Having been whipped into a jealous frenzy, Othello smothers his wife and later commits suicide when the truth has been revealed to him. Emilia on the other hand, is murdered by Iago when she blurts out the truth to several witnesses (Iago tried to have Cassio murdered, but he survived albeit with a bad leg injury). Othello’s last scene is mesmerizing: this is a man who knows he’s killed a woman who was nothing but faithful to him and the guilt is eating him alive. Olivier pours all of his ethos into this performance.
The film is shot with minimal sets which are expanded from the sets used for a 1964 stage version of the play staged by the National Theatre Company. This is the first English-language version of the play to be filmed in color and also, of all Olivier’s Shakespeare films, the one with the least music. Except for one scene where the soldiers sing some drinking songs and some instruments are played, there is no music at all (contrast this with Richard III (1955) which has a HUGE score).
To conclude, if you want to see a masterful rendition of Othello, please check out this film. I don’t think anyone has done the story more justice than Laurence Olivier. If you’ve seen Olivier’s Othello, what did you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!
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