Otello’s (Des)demon(a)

My summer holiday started with a blast. Some of my friends are real opera connoisseurs and they invited me and my wife to experience Otello, a true operatic masterpiece of the Romantic era, composed by the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The libretto was provided by poet and musician Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), the play itself of course being one of William Shakespeare’s tragedies (in English written as Othello, Italian Otello).

René Girard wrote a very interesting book on Shakespeare’s oeuvre, A Theater of Envy. Chapter 31 of this book deals with Othello, entitled Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary? Desire and Death in Othello and other plays. The main characters of Othello are indeed driven by jealousy, by envy – a ‘force’ biblically and traditionally identified with ‘Satan’ or ‘the Devil’. Girard describes envy as the negative side of ‘mimetic’ or ‘imitative’ desire. When a desire is mimetic, it means this desire is based on the imitation of someone else’s desire. We often desire what others desire or possess, not because we intrinsically want to obtain a certain object or goal, but because we more or less unwittingly imitate each other’s desires. An imitated ‘other’ becomes a ‘model’ – someone who is admired – and an ‘obstacle’ at the same time – someone who is envied because of what he owns or is supposed to own; someone who ‘stands in the way’ between the mimetically created subject and object of desire.

Othello is an uncertain and tragic hero. As a dark-skinned Moorish general in the Venetian army, he’s not at ease in the aristocratic circles of Venice. Yet he finds himself married to Desdemona, daughter of a Venetian senator. Throughout the play Othello more and more becomes the puppet of his own uncertainties, as well as of others who ‘pull the strings’ of his worst fears. He first seeks refuge with Cassio, whom he highly admires and therefore will also start to distrust as a potential rival in his love for Desdemona. Othello’s relationship with Cassio (his ‘model-obstacle’), originating from his uncertainties, is at the heart of Othello’s eventual tragic downfall. René Girard in A Theater of Envy (in the edition of St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2004 – originally this title was edited by Oxford University Press, 1991) writes the following on the subject (p.290):

“At the thought of entering for the first time the exalted world of Venetian nobility, Othello is struck with panic and he… resorts to a go-between, his own lieutenant, Cassio. […] Cassio is everything that Othello is not: white, young, handsome, elegant, and above all a true Venetian aristocrat, a real man of the world, always at ease among the likes of Desdemona. Othello appreciates Cassio so much that he selects him rather than Iago as his lieutenant.”

Iago becomes the demonic machinator of the play, driven by envy himself. Jealous of Othello’s choice for Cassio, Iago sets up a trap by which he convinces Othello to lower Cassio’s rank. He then gains both Othello’s and Cassio’s trust: he advises Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead for him with her husband, while at the same time he suggests to Othello that Cassio is after his wife. So, every time Desdemona puts in a good word for Cassio, Othello’s suspicion as well as his desire to possess Desdemona ‘completely’ is reinforced (as he ‘imitates’ the supposed desire of Cassio). In order to fulfill his desire Othello eventually murders his wife – so she can no longer belong to Cassio or someone else. Girard is right to emphasize the close relationship between Eros (desire) and Thanatos (death) – p.294-295:

“Death… often has a sexual meaning in Shakespeare… Like everything else in Shakespeare, the kinship of death and desire can be read in either a comic or a tragic vein. Whether or not it ‘really occurs,’ and whether or not it is turned into a pun, the violent conclusion alludes to the overwhelming presence of death at the climax of the mimetic process. As desire becomes increasingly obsessed with the obstacles that it keeps generating, it moves inexorably toward self-and-other annihilation, just as erotic courtship moves toward its sexual fulfillment.”

In Verdi’s rendition of the play, the dramatic pinnacle lies in the second to last act of the opera, Act III. I chose fragments of this act from a 1995 performance, with Placido Domingo as Otello and Renée Fleming as Desdemona, at the famous Metropolitan Opera House (the Met) in New York. My friends and I were lucky enough to hear Renée Fleming as Desdemona once more at the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris, last Friday, July 1. The setting was different, but she was just as great…

CLICK TO WATCH the first part of Act III:

What strikes me the most in Act III, from a dramatic point of view, is Otello’s refusal to listen to his wife. He considers listening to her as taking advice from the devil. At this point in the libretto, Arrigo Boito refers to the Medieval Catholic formula for exorcisms, “Vade Retro, Satana” (recorded in a 1415 manuscript found in the Benedictine Metten Abbey of Bavaria). Otello sings “Indietro!” (“Aback!”), an important word that is not translated in the fragments shown. The aforementioned formula as well as this word are similar to Jesus saying to Peter “Get behind me, Satan” in Mark 8:33 or Matthew 16:23. There, Jesus refuses to listen to Peter because Peter tries to seduce him to compete with ‘the rulers of this world’. In other words, Peter takes the role of ‘Satan’, meaning that he tries to trick Jesus into ‘mimetic rivalry’. Peter tries to trick Jesus into enviously comparing himself to others ‘to protect himself’. With this in mind the tragic irony in Act III of Verdi’s Otello becomes obvious. Otello’s paranoia has become so powerful that he is no longer capable of hearing the truth. The truth is Desdemona is innocent, but she becomes the victim, the ‘scapegoat’ of Otello’s anxieties and frustrations. Otello believes he’s denouncing ‘Satan’, but in fact he actually takes advice from Iago’s hints and is consumed by envy.

Click to continue the important duet between Otello and Desdemona and keep enjoying two of the greatest singers of all time


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