Ben Okri: Leaping out of Shakespeare’s Terror

 

Ben Okri’s attention on Othello is fascinating, mainly in terms of his focus on the protagonist’s ethnicity in modern and traditional performance. His quotations could be essential in an exam, as his essay, ‘Leaping out of Shakespeare’s Terror’ introduces ideas about race whilst also embracing broader thoughts about humanity itself.

There is something frightening about a majestic man who believes what they say about him. He believes too much in appearances…” Okri is revealing the irony present in Othello’s faith in appearances when characters such as Brabantio and Roderigo fall prey to the same prejudiced belief system. They are all ultimately harmed by this, with their assumption of appearances not protecting from the loss of their love (Desdemona) and even their own lives.

“Iago is the most perceptive person in the play: so coldly does he calculate the shallowness of Othello’s rise, how much he must have paid, how much rage he must repress. And because Othello can’t really release his rage, as it would hinder his rise, he can’t transform his anger into something higher. He can’t therefore transcend his jealousy… all Iago has to do is open up in Othello the element of self-destruction.” Othello doesn’t have the privilege of rage – Shakespeare gives the villain a voice through Iago’s soliloquies, even using more words than the play’s titular character. Othello, however, is debatably punished by Shakespeare’s structure. Othello isn’t allowed the same private exhaustion as everything he says and does is witnessed by other characters. It is even framed by others – Othello’s first impression is defined by the racist views of Roderigo and Brabantio, and his suicide is undermined by Iago’s defiance in living, never allowing him the privilege of privacy and retreat.

“Othello is the only black man in the universe of the play. He is isolated by colour. He cannot hide. And his position of great authority in society makes his isolation deeper… Honourable, trusting, and surrounded by people who might see him as their worst nightmare. The loneliness of colour made worse by the solitude of power. Trapped in a code of honour, to whom could he turn? Who could he trust? It was safer for him to trust those who seemed trustworthy. To begin to doubt would bring on insanity, for he would have to doubt everyone. And then his mortal terror would begin. He would find himself in the labyrinths of that nightmare of history from which there is no escape. That is perhaps why towards the end of the play his dementia thunders as if in the monstrous echo chamber of his own skin.” Okri analyses Othello’s claustrophobia, not just of his location and setting, but also the very setting of his skin. It acts as a physical barrier than blackens his vision.

“It is amazing that Othello’s suicide is seen as an extension of his nobility, when in fact it is the inescapable logic of his impotence. The whole machinery of the play is set in motion by the presence of this lone black man. By the end he has killed himself. Iago, who is responsible for so many deaths is dragged away, unrepentant. Without Othello, the universe of the play becomes homogenous, diminished. There are always alternatives. We always need the other.” None of the events would’ve happened if there hadn’t been a binary opposition. Is Othello’s skin alone enough to incite conflict? This is evidenced in Act One, where Othello is not yet present but the entire conversation between Iago and Roderigo is based around the protagonist. This enforces Shakespeare’s titling of the play – it is only about Othello, because he is not only a demonstration of character, but an embodiment of conflict. Likewise, without Othello’s presence, the play ascends into order – Cassio takes rule and Iago, the villain, has nothing left to fight for. Was it consequently really Iago who caused the conflict at all? Perhaps he was just a figure reacting to it. Okri perceives Othello’s suicide as “a wishing away of reality” that “avoids the problem of race”. His death is easier to comprehend and establishes a new equilibrium without conflict.

“It seems that in the vessel of Othello’s skin, Shakespeare poured whiteness. It is possible that Othello actually is a blackened white man.” Othello’s ethnicity is not talked about to anyone in the play except from Othello himself. Brabantio, Roderigo and Iago’s racist discussion of his noble status is not spoken in his presence, and it is Othello himself that points out his “blackened skin”, as if his skin has somehow been altered from its default status. In a world of whiteness, Othello doesn’t conclusively regard himself as a black man, but one of nobility who transcends ethnicity. He is a soldier who is proud of his military achievements, and it is never his aim to diminish who he was fighting against, but always to accentuate his own worth.

“Othello as an Arab was popularised by Samuel Coleridge and Charles Lamb. They did not want to face the full implication of Othello’s blackness… If it did not begin as a play about race, then its history has made it one… If you take away Othello’s colour then you don’t really have the magnitude of the tragedy… Othello’s colour is not real on the page. It can be avoided.”

Okri believes that Othello can’t be blamed for trusting Iago. With the exception of Desdemona, “Iago is the only one who expresses what he feels for Othello. He is lying, but nonetheless he expresses”. And when the two people who express true emotion for Othello share opposing views, he must then choose between the only two people who are visibly communicative and responsive. He is not just a solider to them, but a man. Additionally, these are two people who are separate from Othello in physical and mental ways – Desdemona’s gentle femininity romanticises his racial difference and Iago’s prejudice demonises it. Neither accept Othello as he is because they never face each other’s reality.

“The real jealousy at work in the play is not Othello’s, but Iago’s”. The “green eyed monster” that Iago projects onto Othello could, of course, be a reference to Othello’s ethnic bestial connotations (“barbary horse”), but also to the monster Iago creates within himself. “Iago represents those who cannot accept the other. He cannot except himself… The other is ourselves as the stranger, acting not only as a foil, but as a mirror. He has the power of the playwright, manipulating people around his plots and killing characters when they don’t behave as expected, for example the love he doesn’t know Emilia has for Desdemona. He has, consequently, created Othello, and his self-loathing and hatred is personified to become the jealousy infused monster that gazes upon Othello’s success and love.

There is no greater sorcery than poetry.” This irony supports Iago’s status as a villain and Othello’s status as a victim. Othello’s words are misconstrued as sorcery through the racist connotations of blackness with witchcraft, demonised by a society fearful of magic (James 1’s Witchcraft Act in 1604 being his first accomplishment as King of England), while Iago’s poetic words are used for the manipulation of Othello’s innocence. Shakespeare presents words as the ultimate tools for beauty and destruction, and their blurred differences that come to mirror the complexity of Iago’s character.

“The romantic reduces black people to a fantasy. And then they love the illusion they have themselves created.” Okri critiques Desdemona’s ignorance that prevents her from seeing reality and results in her and Othello’s doomed alliance: for he doesn’t face her reality either. He never questions the true basis of her love, and consequently doesn’t understand her illusions, her lack of cunning and fear. And love alone is never enough.” A lot of critical discussion is based around Iago and Othello’s motivation for their actions, yet the seemingly radical act of love Desdemona projects towards Othello is rooted in the mystique of his stories. In a way, this is a kind of sorcery, as it creates a magic that is otherwise invisible, generating another barrier that blurs the truth. “That is how those who remain unaware, blind to their predicament, are always betrayed. They are betrayed as much by those who don’t care about them as by those who love them.”

Othello’s final words ask that he been spoken of truthfully: “Speak of me as I am: nothing extenuate, nor set down in malice. Then you must speak of one that loved not wisely, but too well.” He is demanding to not be beautified, simplified or lessened. He doesn’t want to be more or less, just what he is. That failure to love wisely applies to every character in the play – to Desdemona, to her father, to Iago – and to the audience. He demands reality, not appearance, and perhaps he has finally had his moment of anagnorisis.  It was not only his failure to love wisely, but humanity’s.

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