We began reading and discussing Act III tonight with such gusto that we actually never stopped to play a game!
As we read, we pondered why Cassio doesn’t just listen to Emilia and Desdemona when they tell him that Othello is going to bring him back into his job – that he has to keep a “politic difference” because of Montano’s status, but not to fear anything long term. They tell him this repeatedly, but he makes a choice to continue to trust Iago, who does not give him information directly from their boss. The ensemble explored not only the relationship between the men – the trust forged in battle – but Cassio’s agony over his mistake, his lack of sleep, and the possibility that he is still drunk or hungover from the night before. All of these things may cloud his ability to make the right decision.
We also talked more about Iago – he’s got Cassio’s job now, and yet he keeps going. One woman said that once your pride is hurt badly enough, there is nothing that can quench your thirst for revenge – that he feels he has the moral high ground, and what happens is everyone else’s fault. “He’s got a victim mentality,” she said. “The more justified you feel, the angrier you get,” said another woman.
“He was passed up for a position he deserved, and it’s okay to be angry about it,” said a longtime ensemble member. “But he takes it too far,” said another. The first person replied, “I don’t know if he meant it to go this far – if he meant for someone to die.” Another said, “It doesn’t matter – every choice leads to something. All the choices we made led us here.”
We decided to table the discussion till we’ve read more. Because of the theme that is emerging of duality in this play, the ensemble is currently questioning everyone’s motives – we even began to question whether Desdemona means what she says, although I think the more we read of her, the less we’ll question her. I reminded the group that, prior to this act, we haven’t heard much at all from Desdemona or Emilia, and we’re likely to know them a lot better the deeper we get. At this point, some members of the group feel Desdemona’s motives are pure and from a place of friendship and/or interest in Othello’s wellbeing (she knows Cassio has his back), but others aren’t so sure.
Then we started in on Act III, Scene III, which is long and intense, and intensely interesting. Our excitement grew the more we read – this group is really in love with the language, and many gasped audibly or laughed in appreciation at Iago’s skillful manipulation of Othello – how upset he make Othello without having actually said anything of substance. Some women spoke of having manipulated others in this way, i.e., “Are you going to wear your hair like that?” Others spoke of recognizing this kind of behavior in others from their lives.
“He’s manipulating – he’s playing a game,” said one woman. “He’s planting a seed,” said another. One woman said she felt sorry for Othello as he began to lose his composure.
I hearkened back to one woman’s likening of Iago to a chess master several weeks back – of being someone who is thinking far ahead but remaining open to opportunity so he can react to his opponent’s moves.
That same woman likened Iago to Loki, the god of mischief. She strongly feels that, while he means harm, he doesn’t mean for things to go as far as they do.
We ran out of time before we got to the end of the scene, and as we put our ring back up, one woman said, “This was AWESOME tonight.”
We launched right back into Act III, Scene III, tonight after a quick recap for someone who was absent on Tuesday. We took our time breaking down Othello’s soliloquy after Iago’s exit, which contains a fairly complicated metaphor. We noted that he immediately leaps to faults in himself rather than faults in Desdemona to explain her unfaithfulness – that many people besides Iago have primed him for this.
Following our reading of the section when Desdemona drops her handkerchief and Emilia gives it to Iago, one member of the group asked if we thought Emilia was in on the plot. Another stated pretty adamantly that she seems like a battered wife. “If she was thinking, she’d think this was sketchy, but at this point she’s so broken she’s not thinking,” she said. We did note that she seems to feel remorse the moment she actually hand the handkerchief to her husband.
We made our way through the remainder of the scene – Othello’s rage and Iago’s continued and masterful manipulation of him. “This is one of our big challenges,” I said to the group. “We need to really understand what makes Othello go from one extreme to the other so quickly. Many productions break this scene up, but Shakespeare wrote it to be played in real time, and we need to keep that in mind. How do we find the truth in that? And, likewise, we need to keep in mind that, no matter how dark Iago’s intentions, all of these people trust him.”
“This is just life,” said one woman. “Iago’s basically tapping into Othello’s one major weakness,” said another. She spoke of his insecurity, doubt, and lack of control. “He trusted one person, gave away his heart, and she betrayed him.”
“Iago has been jealous of Othello his whole life, and now’s his opportunity,” said another. Another woman brought up that Othello’s insecurities may be rooted in the cultural and class differences between him and all of the people he deals with.
Then one woman said that, if she were playing Iago, she’d want to walk around pretending to be him all day – that she’d want to fully inhabit him 24-7 as a way of truthfully telling his story. This led to a pretty animated conversation about how that method of acting, while it can make for great artistic effect, lends itself to great personal risk (ensemble members brought up Heath Ledger as an example). Although our group is not an acting class, I felt it was important in this moment to explain the difference between safe and unsafe methods of acting, since this group is already diving much deeper into the material than past ensembles and is likely to continue to do so. This material is rich and intellectually stimulating, but it is also raw and emotional, and many ensemble members can personally relate to what some of the characters go through. It is of the utmost importance that our exploration and storytelling remain safe – that we continue to draw on our personal experiences to learn about the play (and thus gain new perspective on our stories), but that we not re-live past trauma of our own while trying to tell these characters’ stories.
As always with this program, I go where the group leads me. If we are going to get a bit into acting technique as a means of safe storytelling, then that’s where we’re going. We will maintain our emphasis on process rather than performance; on gaining empathy and knowledge rather than on becoming Actors with a Capital A. We will continue to take care of each other.