This coming weekend I’ll be fortunate enough to visit one of the Midwest’s premiere Shakespeare venues, American Players Theatre, in the deep woods of Southern Wisconsin. They’ll be performing the classic tragedy, Othello.
Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.
—Othello, Act V, Scene ii
Here Othello writes his own epitaph. At this point in the play, all has been revealed: Iago’s murderous plot of revenge, tricking Othello into murdering his innocent wife, Desdemona. In his last speech, Othello eloquently confesses that he loved well, but was unwise; was not prone to jealousy, but when driven to it, pursued it to its last degree; and that he held the most precious thing in the world only to foolishly cast it away.
His final couplet, after stabbing himself, is to kiss the dead Desdemona with these words:
I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this,
Killing myself, do die upon a kiss.
Othello was written in about 1604, just a few years after the triumphant tragedy of Hamlet, and began Shakespeare’s run of shockingly brilliant tragedies, including King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Iago the villain of Othello, is considered to be the epitome of evil in western literature, and even in its day, Othello was powerfully provocative. Elizabethans were frightfully racist, and yet Shakespeare dared to make a ‘blackamoor’ the tragic protagonist of his play.
The image comes from the currently running production of Othello at American Players Theatre, with Chike Johnson as Othello and James Ridge as Iago.