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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Even more on Iago disguised as Othello's Clown

 Laurie, let me start by thanking you very much for your considered, respectful, and probing disagreements with my (admittedly radical and unprecedented) claim that Iago is disguised as the Clown in 3.1 and 3.4 of Othello. It’s exactly the kind of reply I hope to receive, whether in agreement or disagreement, because I must sharpen my argument to keep it viable.

Laurie wrote: “I recall that something very like this was posted in response to Larry Weiss. I admit at the time that I was in transit from Australia to New Orleans for SAA, so I skimmed it, but my memory served me well in thinking that you had not yet addressed 3.1, Arnie”

Laurie, as you discerned, in my early reply to Larry, I wrote “3.4” when I meant to write “3.1”, and I only became aware of the typo when reading, and responding to, your previous reply to me---hence my (silent) correction of that typo in that reply. I apologize for any confusion, and I’m glad you went on to reply to my claim as I originally intended it.

That confusion has an inadvertent silver lining, as it suggests to me another line of rebuttal to your critique of my argument re Iago’s wearing a disguise as a Clown that Iago could readily remove and re-don in a very short time period.  I.e., while it appears that the situation in 3.4 is different from that in 3.1 in terms of time lapse, upon examination it is not materially different at all, as I’ll now explain:

On the one hand, in 3.4 there’s clearly plenty of time between the Clown’s exit and Iago’s entrance, to allow Iago to discreetly remove and stow away his disguise as Clown. I imagine that disguise to have consisted of a face-concealing beard---like the one Iago specifically directs Roderigo to wear while in Cyprus----together with some appropriate loose-fitting Clown garb, which  Iago could’ve worn right on top of his usual clothing. Such a disguise would have been very easily and quickly removed, and would also have provided an additional benefit—it would’ve concealed Iago’s actual trim soldier’s body shape, making his build appear huskier. And the rest of Iago’s disguise, such as change of voice and gait, would obviously have been instantaneously shed.

In 3.1, on the other hand, it might seem at first glance that there’s not enough time for Iago to pull off the same quick-change, when we read this sequence:

CASSIO   Prithee, keep up thy quillets. There's a poor piece of gold for thee: if the gentlewoman that attends the general's wife be stirring, tell her there's one Cassio entreats her a little favour of speech:
wilt thou do this?
CLOWN   She is stirring, sir: if she will stir hither, I shall seem to notify unto her.
CASSIO   Do, good my friend.
Enter IAGO

It’s easy to take the path of least resistance, and read “Exit Clown  Enter Iago”, as if only a few seconds elapse between these two stage events. However, I suggest that would be an assumption based on no actual evidence. Going further, if we study the above passage, I say it’s more plausible and realistic if there’s a gap of about 30 seconds between that exit and entry. Why?

On the upper side, a gap of more than 30 seconds without spoken dialog or significant action would begin to feel like dead air on the radio—but for 30 seconds, I think it would be dramatically quite effective if, after the Clown enters the castle, we watch Cassio nervously pacing back and forth a half dozen times. Cassio would not expect Emilia to appear instantaneously, because it would take time minutes for the Clown to get to her, to speak to her, and then for her to make her way down to the castle entrance. But Cassio would be very agitated, and every second would feel like a minute to him. That would make good theater, don’t you think? The absence of dialog for 30 seconds would work perfectly.

And then, when Iago suddenly shows up after only 30 seconds, instead of a few minutes, Cassio would be pleasantly surprised, which neatly explains why he says “In happy time, Iago”. This would translate today into “Even quicker than I expected, and just the guy I needed to talk to as well.”

And, in the same vein, there’s nothing in Iago’s “You have not been a-bed, then?” that suggests that Iago, who presumably  emerged from Othello’s castle the same way the Clown entered, has encountered the Clown, or that suggests that Iago has any idea that Cassio was going to be there when he walked outside. Yet if Iago and the Clown had bumped into each other, you’d think that the Clown would’ve immediately passed Cassio’s message on to Iago, to in turn pass on to Iago’s own wife, Emilia, right?

And, getting to my main point, if 30 seconds have elapsed between the Clown’s exit and Iago’s entrance, that gives Iago plenty of time to shed his Clown disguise and stow it away safely in a dark hall corner near the castle entrance, where he can quickly get at it again (which he will need to do so after he leaves Othello’s room at the castle at the end of 3.3). And so Iago can then bolster his disguise as the Clown by speaking to Cassio as if he did not bump into the (imaginary) Clown in the hall inside.

Laurie also wrote: “You begin the revised comment with “What if…,” which always concerns me when it is offered for an explanation of what is supposed to be true for the play (in this case, that the Clown’s true identity is Iago). The moment we have to supplement the explicit content of the play with a “what if” explanation to cover what isn’t there, we are moving away from the play, I suggest. “

As I think I’ve already made clear in the first part of this reply, above, when I wrote “What if”, I wasn’t suggesting a departure from what is written in the text of the play, so much as I’m suggesting a departure from reading the stage directions too passively, and assuming Shakespeare always wrote them to be as complete and clear as possible.

I’d also like to answer by presenting my specific claim in larger context.

First, apropos my claim that it’s a normal part of Shakespearean stagecraft for performers to have to answer questions like “how much time to leave between exits and entrances”, correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t believe it was common for Shakespeare to micromanage so closely, as to specify time lapses between the exit of one character followed without intervening event by the exit of another character. My recollection is that Shakespeare did not do this, not because it is unimportant, but because he expected the performer to examine the context of the scene, and to determine what sort of time lapse would make sense. Just as the greatest musical composers left a great deal to the interpretive imagination of the performer in their musical notations.

Second, think about all the careful analysis that any actor must engage in, in order to determine how to deliver lines – again, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe there are many speeches in the Shakespeare canon in which he micromanages by, e.g., telling actors which lines are meant to be delivered ironically, and which are to be delivered straight.  Why is that silence any different from the silence I see regarding time lapses and other similar issues pertaining to entrances and exits?

While it’s beyond the scope of this thread of posts, my research over the past decade has repeatedly suggested to me that, in some very significant aspects, Shakespeare deliberately wrote his stage directions with “significant silences”. By this I mean, he didn’t explicitly say there was an implicit gap in those directions to be filled in, but he was (like Iago at the end of Othello) going “to never speak word” about that, one way or the other. That leaves it up to the reader of the play to discern what is implicit.

This is the very same methodology that Iago often used, where, like the devil he was, he was happy to avoid outright lying if he could achieve his deceptions by letting his victims make their own false assumptions about what he was telling them. And it’s also the same methodology as is employed by many other Shakespearean characters, like Viola, who, while still in disguise as a man, speaks truthfully but cryptically to Olivia and Duke Orsino about her gender.

In other words, I see myself as extending an old and rich strand of Shakespearean criticism that has seen Shakespeare engaging in metafictional games with his readers. By this I mean, Shakespeare conceived the relationship between himself as playwright, and his readers, as involving the same Machiavellian  manipulations of point of view as are employed by a number of his most memorable characters. And there is no character more that way than Iago, so therefore it is particularly fitting that Shakespeare should engage in such subtle misleading in the way Iago is presented to the audience.

In short, then, I attribute to Shakespeare a didactic motive in leaving silences and gaps in his play texts which invite the sort of inquiry I’ve made in this case, and which provide a great payoff in discovering major, surprising aspects of his greatest characters.

Laurie also wrote: “Yet let us go further. The explanation goes on to say that upon the direction to “exit,” the actor playing the Clown/Iago would not leave the stage, but would still be seen “at the extreme side of the stage, behind some sort of wall …” – I’d be curious to find out where else in the early modern dramatic canon a stage direction to “exit” was expected to be a direction to not leave the stage. This would seem to be a significant departure from the practice of entrances and exits as they have been understood. Even where there have been debates about where an entrance or exit is to be made (Fitzpatrick vs Gurr and Ichikawa, for example), I’ve never heard it said that an exit was actually not an exit at all. I’m also unsure that “some sort of wall” might be built to erect on the Globe stage, or the Blackfriars’ stage, or at court, for the sole purpose of allowing this switch to be made on-stage: does the play offer other situations in which this set element would be used?”

I would guess that there have been such stagings and usage of props, and I ask anyone else reading this with knowledge of stage history (that I lack) to chime in if you know of any.

But let’s assume for purposes of argument that you are correct, Laurie, that my suggestion regarding an exit not being a full exit vis a vis the audience would be unprecedented in the staging of Othello. That doesn’t make it incorrect, it may just mean that no one who has previously staged Othello has read the stage directions of the Clown’s exit followed by Iago’s entrance from the metafictional perspective I put forward, above. I.e., perhaps my interpretation has always been implicit in the text, but has been hiding patiently in plain sight for four centuries, waiting to be recognized.

But, as I think about it further, my interpretation does not depend upon an exit of the Clown being a partial exit – I can also readily imagine, instead, that Iago (disguised as the Clown) makes his exit, then  discards the disguise entirely offstage, and then enters within 30 seconds, appearing as himself. I believe that the actor playing Iago/Clown could easily do things gesturally that would clue the audience into that disguise. For example (and I imagine an experienced actor could think of several ways of pulling this off), Iago, while disguised as the Clown, might have walked with a limp (a fitting idea, given Othello’s later imagining he sees Iago’s hooves!) in order to further distance the Clown’s appearance from Iago’s. But then, as the Clown exits, and Cassio is not looking at him, he might instantly stop limping and give a significant look at the audience as he walks off. 

But….I still prefer the idea of the exit that is not entirely an exit, because I still believe it would be more dramatic.  Speaking of which….

Laurie also wrote: “I’m sorry, Arnie, but I don’t think that the pause required for the shedding of a disguise (since nothing else happens on stage while this is supposed to take place) lends itself to an electrifying dramatic moment, but that’s a difference of opinion.”

Yes we do disagree, But I guess neither of us will really know unless and until my version is enacted before a real audience, and we observe their reaction!  ;)

Laurie also wrote: “Of more interpretive importance, I think, is the suggestion that a costume or at least mask and prop change constitutes the “same sort of duping” Iago inflicts on others. I simply don’t see this as anything like the sort of duping to which he subjects other characters in the play, where his arsenal is routinely verbal.”

But you forget---Iago deploys Roderigo in physical disguise as his secret agent! Doesn’t that totally rebut your point, since it shows that Iago’s “toolkit” of deception does include physical disguise? And then, it’s a distinction without a difference between Roderigo in disguise at Iago’s direction, and Iago in disguise at his own direction.

And even if it weren’t for that, I’d still aver that knowing Iago to be a master of deception in verbal ways  does make it more likely that he’d also achieve deception in nonverbal ways as well.

Laurie also wrote: “The final concern I have relates to the added comment in response to my query: “it’s a giant hint to a creative director” = first, this suggests Shakespeare foresaw the advent of the director as a focus for creative oversight of a production….”

And I reply: that’s another distinction without a difference! In every staging of a Shakespeare play, going back to his own, someone, whether Shakespeare himself, or a director, or an actor, has to decide how to make performance questions like this one. So whether you want to think of it as a hint to a director, or to an actor, or to whomever else you like, it’s a hint. Sometimes silences can be deafening.

Laurie concluded with: “As I say, then, I’m yet to be convinced.”

If you will favor me with another substantive reply, addressing my further arguments, above, I will be honored. Perhaps I will nudge you a step or two closer to convincing.   ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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