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Last week, when I did my posts about Macbeth, the charming and talented Tessa Gratton made some particularly astute comments on one of the posts about Macbeth and how she relates it to Othello. And so it came to pass that I propositioned her. For a conversation.

So, here's Tessa, over on the right in her lovely author photo taken by Marisa Stanley. I will assume you all have a good enough idea what I look like and spare you an author photo of myself at this time. Tessa is, in case you didn't already know it, a genius author fond of blood and Nordic myths. She also has a degree in gender studies, and a penchant for Shakespeare.

KRF: I really loved your comment to the Macbeth post (here it is, in case you don't remember: "I also like linking Macbeth to Othello. Directly so through language ("out brief candle" among other things), and Othello is sort of a culmination of some of the themes in Macbeth. Iago is, in a lot of ways, the personification of the more abstract weird sisters. AND Lady Macbeth. A simpler, meaner, more poignant devil. ;) (Even though Othello was written first, I think...)" And you were right about order of writing - it's believe that Othello was 1604 and Macbeth 1606. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on that. And also, I'd love to know who your favorite villain is, both in general and as between the plays I'm talking about this month (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, King Lear are probably candidates - R&J,Henry V and the comedies don't seem eligible somehow).

TESSA: Ok, so. Othello and Macbeth.

Othello is convinced by his best friend/war companion to murder his wife. Macbeth is convinced by his wife to murder his king/war companion. They both act because their egos are hurt. They are both war heroes. Their wives play significant roles in their stories.

There's a lot to draw them together. Mutual self-destruction, FTW!

The imagery they use is very similar, and knowing Shakespeare, he could have found another metaphor if he's wanted to. Seriously. And that's what convinced me that they are meant to be thought of together.

Macbeth, on the death of his wife:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Now, Macbeth isn't exactly torn up about his wife's death, but he does go on about how brief life is, and the key image is "out brief candle" - all life is frail to him, now that he's a murderer several times over and is facing his own death.

Othello, on the death (to come) of his wife:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,--
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!--
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck'd the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.

Othello, on the other hand, is tortured by what he is doing. He sees it as his duty, as his husbandly right to kill Desdemona. He likens her life to a candlelight, too: "thou flaming minister" but recognizes that while the candle can be relit, Desdemona's life cannot return. (Aside: this is one of my favorite soliloquies in all of Shakespeare.)

Macbeth is led astray by fate in the form of the weird sisters, and by his power-hungry wife. Iago, who seduces Othello to the dark side, is power-hungry like Lady Macbeth, but also is representative of the supernatural fates. Devils are talked of much in this play, and Iago certainly takes the role of one: dark and mischievous, causing trouble because he CAN. (Racial aside: Othello is seen as a "dark devil" not only at the end by Emilia because he has murdered his wife, but there is prejudice in the beginning against him because of his skin color. And Iago, pale and friend to all, is the real devil.) Iago is everything Lady Macbeth and the weird sisters were, rolled into one and turned totally freaking evil. You can argue that the weird sisters were neutral, and Lady Macbeth no more flawed than your average tragic hero, but I think it would be very very difficult to argue that Iago is anything but an Evil Villain. A brilliant, funny, very charming Evil Villain, but one nonetheless.

That streamlines perfectly into Iago as my second favorite Shakespearan villain.* He's the main character in Othello, though not the hero, and deliciously, unforgivingly bad. I love the relish he has in his role. Unabashed a-hole. (Kind of like Richard III) And unlike most villains (say, Edmund of King Lear who I love love love, but who is NOT evil), Iago never apologizes or has a redemption moment. Iago CREATES fate, he does not fall prey to it. :D

Ok, that was a lot of waxing about Iago's awesomeness.

My first favorite villain, since you asked, is Hotspur, who is really just an antagonist, not a villain. I <3 him a million ways. :D

Haha - I started out trying to be all literary and actually analyze the text.... and devolved into a love fest.

KRF: First off - love what you've said here. But I'd like to follow up a tick, if I could, by asking you about Desdemona (and no, not her hilarious post-strangling line). I'd like to know if it's fair to compare/contrast her with Lady M., and, if so, what you make of her. Or is there another character in Macbeth whom you believe is her corollary - perhaps Banquo?

Also, Macbeth loved Lady M (I believe), and he sort of lost his joie de vivre after she died. I think that his comments about how "she should have died hereafter" isn't him being cold, but is instead him acknowledging that we all die sometime. Plus, it's a really bad time for him just then, what with all the assassinations and challenges to be dealt with. Do you think his alteration - where he discusses being weary but opts NOT to kill himself - is Shakespeare playing out an alternate ending in a way? Is it a commentary (by the fictional Macbeth) that passes judgment on what Shakespeare's other character, Othello, chose? And is Othello's or Macbeth's the nobler death?

TESSA: Desdemona is only directly comparable to Lady Macbeth in that they are both The Wife. Otherwise, they are totally contrasted. Desdemona doesn't scheme, and that I recall isn't invested in propelling her husband's ambition. She seems, in a word, happy. Lady Macbeth probably would have punched Macbeth in the nards if he'd tried to strangle her, too. Like I said before Lady Macbeth is to Macbeth what Iago is to Othello: a slightly less powerful partner and confidant. A voice in his hear. A friend. The primary relationship in OTHELLO is the one between Othello and Iago, just like in MACBETH it is the one between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Desdemona is second, really, in her husband's mind, despite his genuine love. Probably because in war and warrior societies, usually, everything is about homosocial status and ties. Lady Macbeth MAKES herself fit in to Macbeth's homosocial hierarchy with her lack of children, her refusal of mothering, and the whole "unsex me" speech.

Can you tell I don't find Desdemona as interesting? Modern prejudice, that. I do think that Banquo is a possible corollary for her, though I'm more inclined to suggest the avengers in MACBETH as the Desdemona/Emilia corollaries. MacDuff and King Duncan. They are the murdered, the betrayed. The ones who tie the story together and make the final accusations of falsehood/cause the deaths of Macbeth and Othello directly. Duncan = Desdemona, MacDuff = Emilia.

I love this question about the "noble" deaths. I don't think either of them is particularly noble, but I'd have to go with Othello, really. Othello finds out he has been a fool, a betrayer, and a general cad, and immediately offs himself. He acts on false information, but he believes he is being true to honor. Macbeth knows what he's doing is wrong. Hands down. He knows it, but he acts anyway. So I don't think, short of offing himself at the feet of Duncan's true heir (whose name is escaping me) there was really anything Macbeth could to to rescue his lost nobility. If Macbeth had defeated Duncan, don't you think he'd probably have continued his reign until he was totally nuts and someone else killed him? I think he was sorry, but not sorry enough to stop. Yes, I believe he loved his wife, but his betrayal of his king et al soaked the emotion and soul out of him, very slowly.

Othello, otoh, was destroyed in one night, by one act. His heart, his soul, his honor in one fell swoop. ;) He had no choice but to destroy his body, too.

I think Macbeth is the more realistic play, despite the overt supernatural elements, but Othello is the real tragedy.

Woo! This is fun.

KRF: I'm glad you're enjoying it. I find this fun as well.

I am particularly enjoying your Desdemona=Duncan, Emilia=MacDuff analysis. It of course prompts the question: What do you think of Emilia? Did she suspect Iago of villainy all along or was it a revelation to her? Does she "deserve" to die because her loyalty to her friend, Desdemona, was greater than her loyalty to her husband?

In Macbeth, Macbeth is the villain, and MacDuff kills him; in Othello, Iago is the villain, but Othello kills himself, and not Iago, who is taken into custody. One can presume that perhaps he's headed for execution (which could be very painful in Elizabethan England - hanged by the neck for a bit, but cut down while still alive to be disemboweled, for instance, and then quartered), but it's a presumption, not an actuality.

TESSA: I definitely don't think Emilia deserves to die. I suspect she suspected Iago - she knew that he wasn't an awesome guy. But can she be blamed for not seeing what he was really up to? For not realizing what an evil dude she was married to? It isn't likely they married for love the way that Othello and Desdemona eloped. So, who knows if she ever really knew him?

Hmmm, is Macbeth really the villain? He might be "a" villain, but I think I disagree that he is THE villain of the play. I'm not sure there is one, because of the way it's written from his pov. If I had to choose the villain, I'd definitely pick Lady Macbeth over Macbeth. Definitely Macbeth does the villainous, wrong, evil deeds... but is he the villain? Maybe. I have to think about that more. I mean, Macbeth makes all the wrong choices. Does that automatically make him the villain? Or maybe there isn't one.

Othello kills himself and not Iago because he BLAMES himself first. He doesn't try to wiggle out of his vile deed or the consequences of it. He realizes that no matter what Iago said or did, he allowed himself to be manipulated and to lose trust and love for his innocent wife. THAT is a mark of honor, and he kept hold of it by killing himself, by not laying blame anywhere but on his own shoulders.

When I was younger, I decided that Iago would be saved by Satan himself before execution like in Matthew Lewis's gothic novel THE MONK. :D

KRF: *pictures Iago taking a potion that allows him to slip through walls and into bedchambers*

TESSA: I can totally see it. Oh, the HAVOC!

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Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
writerjenn
Jun. 25th, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
These comments:
"And that's what convinced me that they [Macbeth and Othello] are meant to be thought of together." and
"Do you think his alteration ... is Shakespeare playing out an alternate ending in a way?"
fascinate me. I love the idea of a writer having a scenario go down a particular road in one work, but take the other fork in the road in a different work.
kellyrfineman
Jun. 25th, 2009 03:18 am (UTC)
I think John Green did that with Alaska and Paper Towns in a lot of ways. He realized that Alaska was what he terms a "manic pixie dream girl", and decided to examine that issue more closely with Paper Towns. I think it's probably common - consciously or unconsciously - in people who write a lot. There are certain themes, ideas or tropes that are favorites, and they're bound to surface more than once in someone's work.
tessagratton
Jun. 25th, 2009 01:19 pm (UTC)
That was a great note to end the post on. LOL. Thanks for the invite to discuss (and the great introduction!). We should do it again sometime. :D

Ps. I used to have an icon that said "It is the cause my soul" and I used it for writing posts, inwardly amused that I was suggesting that writing is like murdering your wife. Hehe. But I don't know what happened to it, so I had to settle for my Iago's Bloody Hand icon.
kellyrfineman
Jun. 25th, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)
I have no Othello icons, and no room to put them without jettisoning one. And I have, like, over 100 icons. I wish I could have 100 more, but alas and lackaday, it is not possible.

I had a blast with it, and would love to do something similar again in the future. It's always fun talking to smart people who like to geek out about the same sorts of things as I do!
michellcat
Jun. 25th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC)
That was great!
Thanks for posting this fascinating conversation! I'm inclined to agree that Othello and MacBeth are meant to be contrasted.

Othello not only takes full responsibility, blaming himself, not Iago, but even prays not to be forgiven by God.
kellyrfineman
Jun. 25th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
Re: That was great!
That Tessa is wicked smart.
p_sunshine
Jun. 26th, 2009 01:38 pm (UTC)
"Macbeth isn't exactly torn up about his wife's death"
Could you explain a bit more about this? I always saw the "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" to be the days that he would have to spend without her, which I saw as being completely torn up, but I wonder if there's something else here.
tessagratton
Jun. 26th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
I can totally see that being read as him imagining life without her. I've always interpreted his thoughts having directly to do with Lady Macbeth ending with the first two lines of the speech, and the rest of it widens out into a larger metaphor about humanity, and the nature of our lives and deaths. Which reflects back on Lady Macbeth, but isn't really about her, or himself, or his pain.

Reading him as not torn up for me goes back to something Kelly said in a previous post: that Macbeth is really pretty emotionally drained at this point. He's been murdering, feeling guilty, not sleeping, and he does know his life is ending shortly. Everything is coming to a head. He just doesn't have the capacity to wail his grief. I believe he would mourn her, but the news doesn't break him - he's already broken. That's what I meant.
kellyrfineman
Jun. 26th, 2009 05:10 pm (UTC)
As I said in response to p_sunshine, I read the whole speech as relating to Lady M, but my reading still skews closer to yours than to hers - he's acknowledging his loss and his sorrow, but not giving himself over to grief because he's just too damned busy and wrung out to do it just then.
kellyrfineman
Jun. 26th, 2009 05:08 pm (UTC)
Like you, I read this entire soliloquy as relating to Lady M's death. (Certainly the "Out, out brief candle!" does.) But I see him as grieving it, but trying hard to stuff it out of his mind so he can attend to all the other things facing him, rather than actually giving in to his grief. He's under so much stress and pressure just then that he can't really give it his full attention - or vent fully, either. So my reading falls somewhere between yours and Tessa's, but closer to Tessa's, I think.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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