We began tonight with a brief discussion of the end of Act IV Scene II, in which Iago enlists Roderigo to kill Cassio. We are still divided on what motivates Roderigo to do what Iago tells him to do – why he gets sucked back in every time he tries to pull out. This is really going to come down to whichever ensemble member plays Roderigo – I doubt we’re ever all going to agree!
We then read Act IV Scene III, the scene between Emilia and Desdemona as the latter prepares for bed. “What is this scene about?” I asked the group. “I don’t know, but whatever it is, is giving me anxiety,” said one ensemble member.
We all agreed that Desdemona has some sense in this scene of what is about to happen to her – whether she fully realizes that she is about to die was a point of debate, but we all agreed that she knows something bad is about to occur. “She’s resigned,” said one woman, “She’s not even fighting anymore.”
Why does she stay? “She loves Othello so much and is so loyal. She’d rather stay than go. She’s more willing to die because he thinks of her this way,” suggested one person. We picked apart Desdemona’s final line in the scene – “Heaven me such uses send, / Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend.” Again we were divided: is she saying that she can somehow mend the rift between her and her husband, or is she saying that killing her is what’s going to “fix” Othello? Several of us pondered where Desdemona would even go if she did leave – her father is dead (although that isn’t mentioned until the last scene, there is an enormous rift, regardless), she’s never been on her own, she’s quite young, and she’s quite dependent. She really has no options.
What is Emilia doing in this scene? We know she’s trying to make Desdemona feel better. We’re still debating how much she knows of what’s really going on with Othello. We also debated her monologue toward the end of the scene about what motivates women to cheat on their husbands, and whether they are justified. Some of us think she’s fishing to see if there is any chance that Desdemona was unfaithful. Some of us think she’s trying to lighten the mood. Others believe that she’s venting that even if Desdemona had cheated, it wouldn’t be a reason to abuse her – and some of us think that, in a way, Emilia is talking about herself.
We then read and discussed Act V Scene I, in which Roderigo and Cassio fight, and Iago kills Roderigo. We talked about the chaos of the scene – the darkness in which it takes place, and about Iago’s actions more than anyone else’s. “Oh, he’s awesome in this scene,” said one woman, speaking of the way in which he handles a result he didn’t anticipate – killing Roderigo and casting suspicion for Cassio’s injury on Bianca.
And what about that murder? “Well, he kinda had to kill Roderigo,” said one woman, noting that if Roderigo lived he would almost certainly expose the whole plot. “The tension and desperation are coming to a head, you guys,” said another. “Do you realize this is the first time Iago’s actually doing his own dirty work?”
It was an invigorating conversation. Despite the heaviness of the material and its parallels to some of the women’s own lives, we are approaching it (at this point, anyway) in a way that is more intellectual than emotional, and it’s enabling us to have a lot of fun. We are really enjoying delving in and analyzing it. It’s a great foundation to have for when we get up on our feet with it… which will be soon!
After our check in, we dove into Act V Scene II, which is long, intense, and ends the play.
After reading Othello’s first monologue, we paused to talk about his mental/emotional state. Some hear a belief that he’s saving Desdemona, others think it’s really all about him. He sounds spent and exhausted. He seems to believe he’s so far in that there’s no going back. “The language here is flowery. It’s like she fell from grace,” said one woman. “Maybe he’s not just talking about putting out her light,” said another. “She’s the light of his life, and he’s also extinguishing that – his own light.”
We then read through the section that ends with Desdemona’s smothering. “Man, he didn’t even let her talk,” said one woman when we paused. “I’ve been Desdemona, felt those hands around my throat – when they’re at that point, there’s no stopping them,” one woman shared.
I thanked her for sharing something so personal, and then there was a brief silence. “What does the language tell us about the scene?” I asked. It’s fast, disjointed, chaotic, and fragmented, various women suggested. “The thing is,” I said, “She does get some language out, even though she’s constantly interrupted. What’s going on here?”
“Mentally he’s not there anymore,” said one woman. “He’s there, but he’s not there. After he smothers her, he may come back. I call it ‘zoning out.’ You can do a lot of things when you zone out. And then you come back.”
“What would have happened if he delayed for a half hour, like she asks him to?” asked Kyle. “Maybe he wants to do it quick because he feels like he needs to do it,” said one woman. “If he gives it the time, he might not act,” added another. “He thinks she’s still lying,” said another member, “and it makes him angrier.”
We finished reading the scene. I asked the group how they felt about Othello’s final speeches. “He fell into a trap. And it could happen to the best of us,” said one woman. “It does happen to the best of us – we’re all here, aren’t we?” responded another, “But we’re still responsible for our actions. I can feel grief for him, but I’m still pissed at him.”
“I can’t feel sorry for him,” said another woman. “He could have chosen differently at so many points, or investigated more. He had more than one opportunity.”
“I don’t feel sorry for him, but I definitely empathize with him,” said another member. “Can we have empathy for Othello without feeling sorry for him?” I asked the group. “What does that mean, empathy?”
“It means you can put yourself in that person’s position,” said one woman. “It means you can see their perspective.”
“I feel like, being in prison, we’re experts in empathy,” said another. “We all have empathy for each other, for everyone here, just about.”
One woman said that she was fascinated by the idea that “women undid both of these men.” “Did they?” responded Kyle. “Both of these men killed their wives.” We talked more and concluded that, if we refine this idea, we can see that the true crux is a lack of understanding that Othello and Iago have of women – that they turn out to have the same weakness in the end.
Why does Iago, who talks and talks and talks throughout the play, go silent when asked to explain himself? Especially given Shakespeare’s propensity to give his “villains” a last speech to clarify their motives or express a longing for redemption. We thought about that. “Does Iago get what he wanted?” asked Kyle.
“Totally – he got people’s lives ruined, so he got what he wanted,” said one woman. “He didn’t want his own life ruined, though. He has no power in the end. Nothing good came out of this for him. He’s no better than Othello in peoples’ minds, and he cares a lot about what other people think of him,” another responded.
“I think he wanted to be Othello. So no,” said another woman. “He hurt a lot of people… He’s in the balance somewhere,” said another.
We were out of time then, but we are very excited to start to explore these scenes on their feet. Many people are eager to read for different characters, and this is where we’ll begin to think about where people fit in terms of casting, even as we continue to explore the play’s themes.