SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL

ACTOR MITCHELL BUTEL REVEALS THE INSIDE STORY OF PLAYING SHYLOCK IN BELL SHAKESPEARE’S 2017 THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.

BY ANDY MCLEAN

The Merchant Of Venice is more than 400 years old, but it still strikes a chord with audiences the world over. Why do you think that is?
The Merchant Of Venice is just such an exciting play. The narrative is full of suspense and the characters are fascinating. It’s so compelling to watch.

At its heart, the play looks at how we deal with difference, and how we respond to people who are not like we are. That’s still very, very relevant today; whether it’s Christian versus Jew, or Israeli versus Palestinian, or Muslim versus Christian – or even not a religious thing. It’s a notion of one subset of a social stratum against another. The Merchant Of Venice also forces us to ask: If someone wrongs you, do you respond in kind or is there a point at which mercy comes in to it? In society today, we are still dealing with these issues; and in our personal lives we also deal with these issues too.

What drew you to this 2017 production of the play?
There are so many reasons. First, Shylock is on the bucket list for all middle-aged character actors with a bit of European heritage, like me! Second, I’ve only performed with Bell Shakespeare once before [playing Roderigo in 2007’s Othello] but I love the company so much; they do incredible work. Third, I’ve really enjoyed the work of rising director Anne-Louise Sarks over the past few years. Fourth, there’s such a lovely group working on the play – some cracking actors, clowns and good-hearted people.

Shylock has been described as one of the most divisive fictional Jews in history. Why is that?
In theatre and literature there have been many anti-Semitic caricatures of Jewish characters. The Jew has been presented as the devil or the dog or the goat. And of course, in the past 400 years, there have been anti-Semitic readings and performances of The Merchant Of Venice. But I think Shakespeare, the disruptive marketer that he was, was trying to do something different.

Shylock suffers so much bigotry and prejudice and that’s the origin of his resentment and bitterness. Ultimately, I don’t think he is a bad person. I see a proud, stubborn man who is the target of so much hate and so many bad deeds that he comes to a place where he can only see revenge. That’s very sad but, in the context of the play, I think it’s justifiable. This is a personal vendetta. It’s more representative of someone who is obsessed by loss, rather than someone who’s motivated by purely religious conditions. That’s my reading of it.

In our production, Anne-Louise and Benedict Hardie, the dramaturg, have given another Jew in the play, Tubal, some lines in Yiddish that roughly translate to “Show mercy Shylock, show mercy”. So, there’s another Jew in this production saying, “Calm down. You don’t have to do this. There is another option…” which I think is really interesting.

 As well as the religious persecution, Shylock also suffers some devastating family events. We learn in the play that Shylock’s wife has died previously and then we see his daughter, Jessica, run out on him. How does that affect him?
He’s lost his wife. His whole world revolves around Jessica. So, I think that the loss and the betrayal of the daughter, who’s stolen all this money from him, fled in the middle of the night with a Christian – it’s very messy. In many ways, I think Antonio becomes the target of Shylock’s anger after that loss. Shylock doesn’t like Antonio, that’s set up at the start, but it escalates when Jessica elopes in a plot, which Shylock thinks Antonio is involved in. That is the primary motivator for revenge, as Shylock says: “The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought”.

It’s still a bloody way to exact revenge though isn’t it? Shylock wants to inflict a fatal injury upon Antonio, and pursues that all the way to the Duke’s court. But after Portia exposes the legal flaw in the case, Shylock is punished. What do you make of that punishment?
I think it’s horrific. Having previously implored Shylock to be merciful, Portia and the Duke then show very little mercy towards Shylock. They grant him his life but they take everything from him, and castrate him on so many different levels. They take his money from him and we see the effect that has upon Shylock: “You take my life when you take the means whereby I live”. And they force him to become a Christian, stripping him his Jewishness, which is perhaps just as cruel as what Shylock was intending to do to Antonio. And all this punishment can only be meted out because Shylock is considered an “alien” and not a Venetian citizen.

The basis for the punishment is that Shylock is different; he is an outsider.

The 2017 Bell Shakespeare production of The Merchant Of Venice is being performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and is touring nationally – until 26 November 2017.

Andy McLean is a Sydney-based writer who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon. He frequently tweets and shares Shakespeare minutiae from @1andymclean

 

IN CONVERSATION WITH PETER EVANS

Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare and Director of Richard 3, Peter Evans, discusses
what provoked, interested and challenged him in deciding to programme and direct
one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays.

Is Richard 3 more relevant now than it was when it was written in 1592?

When you think about reasons for doing this play, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that Richard 3 is swimming in political relevance. The truth is that this play has always been
relevant – there is always a political situation somewhere that could have come from
Richard’s machinations. For our times, this play is completely about Trump. It’s also important to recognise that it’s about so much more than that – it’s about history and how little we have moved on in 400 years – to not recognise that becomes reductive to the work. Its importance to us and the way that we as an audience engage with the play is that we can see that it’s reflective of the way power is grabbed, or that language is degraded, or the way that fear is used to incite loyalty in times of political unrest.

Does this production occur in a specific time or location?

This production is a continuation of my interest for the last 5 years of finding contemporary and abstract spaces that aren’t of a specific time or place, that work in the way Shakespeare’s stage at The Globe did. It’s quite clearly a stage on which we place our world, and everything on it moves fluidly. The staging enables us to travel quickly from scene to scene, whilst being a psychological space that can encompass ‘all the world.’

Compared to my more recent productions, the world we’ve created for Richard 3 is slightly different. It’s set in a room rather than an open space, however the principle is the same. In this production the characters are trapped for the entire play in one room, set up as a kind of party or convention. Changing the location from a 15th century castle to an unending party that no one can leave, is less about the location and more
about building a community. It is a Court. Who’s in, who’s out in the social world. At this party the stakes are a little higher than most! By not only standing by silently, but also
assisting his rise to power, Richard’s inner circle seek to protect their own place in the pecking order. Richard 3 is a great example of how it isn’t just about the people who climb to the top, it’s also about the people who support them. And more often than not it ends badly for the enablers.

I’m not interested in creating a contemporary equivalent to a historical event or finding
some period or location that makes modern sense of where Shakespeare set the play. I think each of the plays exist on the stage and that they always have truth and reality in them, but not necessarily through representing real locations and real spaces.

What do you think this play has to share with audiences about power?

The History plays are about cycles. We’re painting a picture of a society that is
constantly evolving, but in a sense is in an endless repeat of grabs for power. Cycles
of violence, grief, and rage. That cycle is at the centre of all of the history plays and in this particular work we explore how a protagonist’s/antagonist’s movement towards power ironically erodes his influence. It gets less and less, until he is destroyed and the next person takes over. Within our world all of the women play one role, but we have the men emerging as different characters. They fold into playing two or three different roles and after people are killed they fade back into the party,before eventually unfolding again as
another character. This is where the doubling and tripling of characters in our production gets interesting – we have a conveyor belt of characters who don’t speak up, who look after their own interests. They each get destroyed, but each of them has a moment of recognition. They acknowledge their hubris, or their schadenfreude, greed and/or naivety. And then the cycle continues.

What interests you most about Richard’s progression towards the crown?

One of Richard’s fascinating traits, and part of what makes him so successful, is that he’s unlikely. You can’t imagine him as ruler so you are unbalanced throughout his performance. People and scenes are often off-centre because they can’t believe what
just happened, or anticipate what might come. There is a sense that reality has
been shifted and Richard’s road to power is incredibly unlikely, with too many steps to
get himself to the throne.

It would be fair to assume that few characters in Richard 3 know they’re in a play about Richard 3 – most people in the first half of the play think they’re performing in Edward 4, and that it’s about a time of peace  and reconciliation. Then they think they are in Edward 5, all efforts are towards crowning the young Prince. Only Richard and the people he gathers around him [and Queen Margaret] know that Richard is the centre of the play. Only a few know that they are trying to get him to the crown, not realising that he will destroy everybody who could potentially usurp him once he’s at the top.

This is what makes Kate Mulvany perfect to play the role of Richard – the unlikeliness of it. Many characters in Richard 3 don’t see what he’s doing until it’s too late, and by then Richard has enough power and enough people around him to force his way on to the throne. Not only her gender, but her actual stature, makes her an unlikely threat. They
underestimate how smart and audacious Richard is, and how far he’s willing to go;
that he is more ruthless and will go further than anybody else. Audacity is an important
trait also.

Kate’s ability to play extreme humility means that you become more aware of Richard as the consummate actor. As Richard changes ‘character’, the scenes within the play almost change genre. When it’s necessary for him to be the victim, the poor crippled little boy, Kate is astonishing at dropping into that moment, and suddenly we find
ourselves unexpectedly empathetic towards Richard. You then come up against all these
social norms where you think “even though you killed all those people it’s terrible that
the other characters are so cruel to your face”. That’s a really interesting space
to explore.

Gender also helps us to look at the misogyny in Richard’s character. Shakespeare is interested in misogyny and a lot of his central characters have a deep fear of women. Richard either blames women for his situation or he dismisses them. And that
notion coming out of a female actor, even though Kate is playing a man, points it out.
This is another reason why the women are so important in this play – we don’t double their characters, so they become a constant in carrying grief and rage throughout.

Kate’s Richard is quite confronting because what she brought into the rehearsal room is
the belief that he is created, not born. She sees the victim in him, so there is a sense
of empathy that is confronting. What I also believe is that Richard understands what he has done. And that whether he was born or made a villain, he has a deep appreciation that the pursuit of power has left him completely alone. Perhaps he has always been alone. But like a lot of Shakespeare’s villains he isolates himself to achieve his ambition, then once he has achieved it there is no one to share it with. We exploit this by having Richard constantly surrounded, never alone on the stage. He experiences the proper loneliness of being surrounded by people – truly alone where you have no relationships and no way of connecting with anyone. The fruitless pursuit of power, that eventually kills him.

Richard 3 will play at Sydney Opera House (until the 1 April), Canberra Theatre Centre (6 – 15 April) and Arts Centre Melbourne (20 April – 7 May). Book your tickets now!

TOP 10 SHAKESPEAREAN VILLAINS: NUMBER 1

REVEALING THE LOWEST OF THE LOW – THE MOST DEVIOUS SHAKESPEAREAN VILLAIN.

Compiled by Andy McLean

Read about villains 10 (Regan), 9 (Goneril), and 8 (Claudius).

Read about villains 7 (Henry V), 6 (Richard III), and 5 (Macbeth).

Read about villains 4 (Tybalt), 3 (Lady Macbeth), and 2 (Aaron the Moor).

JOIN THE DEBATE
Who is your favourite Shakespeare villain? Do you agree or disagree with our experts? Share your views on Twitter and Facebook.

1. IAGO (Othello)
When we asked our global panel of experts to name the Shakespeare villain they most love to hate, there was one character who kept turning up like a bad penny: Iago.

This is a character who is single-mindedly evil. From the opening scene of Othello to the last, Iago does nothing but plot, connive and scheme to bring down Othello and all those who love him. In fact, Iago is so utterly evil that, for centuries, audiences have puzzled over what could possibly have driven him to such depths of depravity.  As Shakespeare enthusiast Lis from the Hollow Crown Fans website, says: “You can’t figure out what drives his actions psychologically. They are out of proportion with simply being passed over for a promotion.”

Social researcher and writer Dr Rebecca Huntley also names Iago as public enemy number one: “You really can’t go past Iago. He’s an evil genius and extremely good at identifying people’s weaknesses and turning them against each other. He’d be an excellent office psychopath.”

That’s a view shared by Dr Huw Griffiths from the University of Sydney: “There is something incredibly stylish about this man, an outsider to Venice, who causes absolute havoc and appalling violence through an almost compulsive need to implant fantasies into other people’s brains, using his highly persuasive speech. But when asked for an explanation, he simply says, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.” I love the irony of the situation: a man who has done nothing but talk, now that he is asked to tell the truth, is insisting on silence. He’s pleading the fifth and, as I said: stylish. This silence must, in part, be about the extent to which his malevolence is ultimately inexplicable. But it is also a further extension of his villainy. He continues to stick two fingers up to the system right to the end.”

Follow Hollow Crown Fans on Twitter and Facebook.

Follow Rebecca Huntley on Twitter.

Follow Dr Huw Griffiths on Twitter.

VILLAINS ON STAGE
Bell Shakespeare is currently staging Othello – featuring number one villain Iago – at the Sydney Opera House until 4 December. And soon after that, Richard 3 will be stalking across stages in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne (February to May 2017).

TOP 10 SHAKESPEAREAN VILLAINS: NUMBERS 4, 3 AND 2

OUR COUNTDOWN OF THE MOST DESPICABLE VILLAINS IN SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS IS GETTING TO THE SHARP, POINTY END.

HERE, WE REVEAL NUMBERS FOUR, THREE AND TWO.

Compiled by Andy McLean.

Read about villains 10 (Regan), 9 (Goneril), and 8 (Claudius).

Read about villains 7 (Henry V), 6 (Richard III), and 5 (Macbeth).

4. TYBALT (Romeo And Juliet)
Compared to some of the other villains on our list, Tybalt might not be considered the worst of the worst. He’s certainly a hateful little punk but he only leaves one dead body in his wake. So why does he rank so highly?

Because it’s Tybalt’s hot-headed violence that turns Romeo And Juliet from a romantic comedy into possibly the most heartbreaking tragedy in literary history. For most of the first two Acts, the play is really a story of puppy love, parties and wisecracks.

That all changes when Tybalt slays Mercutio (one of the most outrageously funny characters in the Shakespeare canon). From that moment, events spin dangerously out of control. Having seen Tybalt murder his best mate, Romeo turns from a lover into a fighter and kills Tybalt. And then everyone’s fate is sealed. (Way to go, Tybalt.)

3. LADY MACBETH (Macbeth)
While her husband provides the brawn, it is Lady Macbeth who is the brains behind the Macbeths’ bloody ascent to the Scottish throne. Actor and playwright Kate Mulvany played Lady Macbeth in Bell Shakespeare’s 2012 production and she’s lost none of her affection for the character since.

“Lady Macbeth’s villainy is strangely inspiring!” says Mulvany. “She is ambitious, funny, driven, sexy and smart. She’s not a villain for the sake of being a villain. She chooses villainy as a recovery from her own grief – the loss of her child. There is a deeper, darker psychology to her, which makes her choices all the more fascinating.”

Mulvany also admires Lady Macbeth’s powers of persuasion. “What a way with words! She can seduce the darkest spirits of hell in just a few words – ‘Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here…’ Whoa. Her vernacular is delicious – not just for the actor, but for the audience. And no matter how despicable she is, you can’t help but secretly, naughtily, be cheering for her on the inside.”

Kate Mulvany will play the title role in Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Richard 3 in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne from February to May 2017.

Follow Kate Mulvany on Twitter.

JOIN THE DEBATE
Who is your favourite Shakespeare villain? Do you agree or disagree with our experts? Share your views on Twitter and Facebook.

2. AARON THE MOOR (Titus Andronicus)
For pure bloodthirstiness, it’s hard to go past Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus. Aaron is the lover of Tamora, queen of the Goths. He encourages Tamora’s sons to commit rape, mutilation and murder, then he frames Titus’s sons for the crimes. Plus, he arranges their deaths and, just for good measure, forces Titus to amputate his own hand.

Finally, when Aaron’s wickedness is exposed and he’s apprehended, he shows no trace of remorse. Robert O’Brien, emeritus professor of English literature at California State University, Chico, nominates Aaron the Moor as his favourite villain in Shakespeare, for the character’s “thrillingly defiant speech” at the beginning of Act 5:
I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

Follow Robert O’Brien on Twitter and Facebook.

VILLAINS ON STAGE
Bell Shakespeare is currently staging Othello – featuring the arch villain Iago – at the Sydney Opera House until 4 December. And soon after that, Richard 3 will be stalking across stages in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne (February to May 2017).

WHO WILL BE THE NUMBER ONE VILLAIN?
Stay tuned on social media in the next few days, when we’ll reveal Shakespeare’s number one villain. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

TOP 10 SHAKESPEAREAN VILLAINS: NUMBERS 7, 6 AND 5

WE’RE ON A QUEST TO DISCOVER THE ULTIMATE SHAKESPEAREAN VILLAINS. THE MOST DOWNRIGHT DEVIOUS, NEFARIOUS NASTIES IN ALL OF SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS.

HERE, WE REVEAL NUMBERS SEVEN, SIX AND FIVE.

Compiled by Andy McLean.

Read about villains 10 (Regan), 9 (Goneril), and 8 (Claudius).

JOIN THE DEBATE
Who is your favourite Shakespeare villain? Do you agree or disagree with our experts? Share your views on Twitter and Facebook.

7. PRINCE HAL aka HENRY V (Henry IV, Henry V)
Yes, yes we know. Prince Hal is a hero. One of Shakespeare’s most inspiring, in fact. A gallant fighter, and a brilliant orator. A man who conquers every battlefield he steps onto.

So why is he on our list of villains?

Well for starters: He’s disloyal. Before he becomes king, Hal is happy to party with Falstaff and Bardolph in the den of inequity that is the Boar’s Head Tavern. But the moment he becomes king, Hal publicly turns his back on Falstaff. Later still, he shows no hesitation in sentencing Bardolph to be hanged for theft.

So far, so bad. But that’s nothing compared to what else Hal is capable of. As John Bell points out in On Shakespeare, as soon as Hal is crowned Henry V, he embarks upon a patriotic war that “will deflect rebellion, unite the country and make the new king a national hero.” The inevitable casualties are but a trifling detail.

“The new king bullies and blackmails the Church into sanctioning his cause,” says Bell. Then Henry V undertakes a war of invasion, executes anyone who stands in his way and, during the Battle of Agincourt, commands his soldiers to commit the ultimate war crime: slaughtering thousands of prisoners.

If you’re still in any doubt about Henry V’s villainous credentials, just read the bloodthirsty threat he issues to the besieged inhabitants of Harfleur.

6. RICHARD III (Richard III)
When it came to history, Shakespeare never let the facts get in the way of a good story. There are those who believe King Richard III was, in real life, a good and progressive monarch but there’s no trace of those qualities in the character that Shakespeare creates. In the play, Richard III cons his way to the English crown, and clings to it, thanks to a relentless campaign of conniving, executions and warmongering.

“Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III is still controversial today, with armies of ‘Ricardians’ angrily protesting that it’s Tudor propaganda,” says Pat Reid, editor of Shakespeare Magazine. “Personally, I wonder if Shakespeare makes Richard so monumentally grotesque as a way of hinting that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.”

Reid nominates the famously hunchbacked villain as his favourite: “He’s so gleefully malevolent that he almost becomes a kind of devil in human form, but he’s also laugh-out-loud funny.”

Reid adds: “He resembles a modern-day serial killer in that we know he’s going to keep on killing until he’s stopped. The whole issue of Richard’s physical deformity adds another dimension. I thought Benedict Cumberbatch played Richard superbly in The Hollow Crown 2 – he’s an arch-manipulator, but at times he seems horror-stricken to be possessed by forces beyond his control.”

Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Richard 3 will hit stages in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne from February to May 2017.

Read Shakespeare Magazine and follow on Twitter and  Facebook.

5. MACBETH (Macbeth)
Shakespeare obviously had a bit of a thing for villainous kings – and Macbeth is possibly the most treacherous of all. With his mind poisoned by prophecies from three witches, Macbeth murders the King of Scotland in his sleep and takes the crown for himself. But once on the throne, paranoia overcomes him. He spends his brief reign ordering the deaths of any potential enemies (and even his best friend Banquo) before the whole thing comes crashing down in a bloody battle at Dunsinane Castle.

Macbeth is a villain so heinous and despicable that actors are actually afraid to say his name out loud. “The curse of Macbeth” is infamous in theatre circles where (according to legend) if you speak his name, disaster will befall whatever play you’re working on.

Sounds like a tall story, right?

Maybe. But the last time Bell Shakespeare staged Macbeth at the Sydney Opera House,  in 2012, half the cast were struck down with food poisoning – and opening night had to be postponed. Now, we’re not saying there’s any truth in the superstition but, then again, we’re still not saying “Macbeth” out loud either…

Read about villains 10 (Regan), 9 (Goneril), and 8 (Claudius).

VILLAINS ON STAGE
Bell Shakespeare is currently staging Othello – featuring the arch villain Iago – at the Sydney Opera House until 4 December. And soon after that, Richard 3 will be stalking across stages in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne (February to May 2017).

COMING SOON
Stay tuned on social media for updates as we continue our countdown of Shakespeare’s Top Ten Villains. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

TOP 10 SHAKESPEAREAN VILLAINS

WE ASKED AN EXPERT PANEL TO NAME THEIR FAVOURITE VILLAINS IN SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS.

TODAY WE BEGIN THE COUNTDOWN OF CRIMINALS WITH NUMBERS TEN, NINE AND EIGHT.

Compiled by Andy McLean.

10. REGAN (King Lear)
9. GONERIL (King Lear)
Author Jane Caro picked King Lear’s elder daughters for our gallery of rogues, though she does have some sympathy for their plight: “They are two unloved daughters, sidelined for the youngest, who grow up and escape from their tyrannical, narcissistic father only to have him drag them back when he decides he needs a bit of help. He created their resentment and sense of being unlovable and eventually it destroys all of them – even that mealy-mouthed little suck-up Cordelia.”

Caro’s conclusion? “If you are a Donald Trump of a father then you reap what you sow.”

In ranking our list of villains, we found it a lot harder to choose between daughters than King Lear does. But Goneril narrowly trumps her younger sister, because she’s more imaginative when it comes to torture. When Regan commands that poor Gloucester be hanged, Goneril goes one better: “Pluck out his eyes”.

Follow Jane Caro on Twitter.

JOIN THE DEBATE
Who is your favourite Shakespeare villain? Do you agree or disagree with our experts? Share your views on Twitter and Facebook.

8. CLAUDIUS (Hamlet)
It’s no wonder Hamlet’s uncle was a popular choice as Shakespeare’s greatest villain. “Claudius is premeditated in killing Hamlet’s father, not very remorseful when Polonius dies, and premeditated again when trying to kill Hamlet,” says Brendan P Kelso, author of the [link] Shakespeare For Kids book series. “Then, in the end, everyone dies because of Claudius’s actions. If that’s not a stone cold villain, I don’t know what is!”

Dr Will Sharpe, teaching fellow at the University of Birmingham, describes Claudius as the quintessential ‘grey’ figure of evil in Shakespeare: “He’s unique in that we don’t get to know unambiguously that he’s the villain of the piece until over halfway through the play, and even then it’s through a prayer scene in which he’s searching his conscience.”

In nominating Claudius for our list, Dr Sharpe points out: “Shakespeare offers several suggestions that Claudius may actually be a better statesman than Hamlet’s father, or Hamlet himself – it’s easy to lose sight of the play’s political dimensions when focusing too closely on the revenge plot. Claudius may actually have done Denmark a favour in removing its war-hungry leader. Added to which, young Hamlet, the revenge ‘hero’, ends up murdering Polonius, becoming, in effect, no better than the murderer he stalks.

“Claudius is anything but the moustache-twirling malefactor we can all agree on hating. He shows such empathy and understanding during Ophelia’s descent into madness that we almost forget he’s ultimately responsible for it all. We do learn to hate Claudius by the end, but the journey there, as with everything in the play, is complicated in the best of ways!”

Follow Shakespeare For Kidson Twitter  and Facebook.

Follow Dr Will Sharpe on Twitter.

VILLAINS ON STAGE
Bell Shakespeare is currently staging Othello – featuring the arch villain Iago – at the Sydney Opera House until 4 December. And soon after that, Richard 3 will be stalking across stages in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne (February to May 2017).

 COMING SOON
Stay tuned on social media for updates as we continue our countdown of Shakespeare’s Top Ten Villains. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

BLACK POWER, WHITE NOISE

HOW OTHELLO STILL STRIKES A CHORD IN MODERN-DAY AUSTRALIA.

BY ANDY MCLEAN

Othello is set thousands of kilometres away, and hundreds of years ago, but it still feels close to home. Uncomfortably so. Contemporary Australia is still grappling with racial injustice, still suffering moral panic over immigration, and still waging war on foreign soil. When we see Othello on stage, we are forced us to look at ourselves. And what we see is the legacy of imperialism, the loss of cultural and religious identity, and the sometimes fragile nature of racial assimilation.

A recent study on social cohesion, Australia Today 2016, found that while Australia appears to be a broadly tolerant nation, pockets of prejudice still linger beneath the surface. The Scanlon report surveyed more than 10,000 Australian born and immigrant respondents. It found incidence of discrimination were not uncommon, particularly towards people of colour. Participants in focus groups described unwitting discrimination from children shocked at their skin colour, employment discrimination and general “distancing” by people on the street as well as police harassment.

From what we see of Venice in the play, Othello the black ‘Moor’ experiences discrimination on a daily basis. “One of the reasons Othello feels so contemporary is how casual the racism is,” says Peter Evans, who is directing the play for Bell Shakespeare in 2016. “For example, when Brabantio discovers his daughter Desdemona is secretly involved with Othello, he flies off the handle. He makes several racist comments, but it feels like everyone excuses it because he’s angry over his daughter.”

KNOW YOUR PLACE
Othello is a military hero in Venice, who has risen from his immigrant, non-Christian roots, to become a General in the army. But as a Moor, he still isn’t fully accepted by the white population in Venice. “It’s fascinating because you actually see that Othello has to bite his tongue three or four times a day,” says Evans. “And you can’t help but think about Australian sport and the way that some people laud Indigenous players for their skills but don’t want the players to ‘get above their station’. Adam Goodes was certainly on the receiving end of that.”

Professor Andrew Markus from Monash University who oversees the Scanlon research estimates that the levels of culturally intolerant people in Australia is probably around 20% of the population. Quoting some of the research findings, The Guardian reported: “…when asked what they least liked about Australia, the first choice of 18% of third generation respondents was racism and discrimination. Another 19% of third generation Australians said too much immigration. There is Australia’s race debate.”

This underlying climate of discrimination also permeates Venice in Othello, says Evans: “Shakespeare doesn’t shine a light on the racism; it’s just there. It’s just another thing that’s woven through the play. It’s not a play about race, and yet race is absolutely integral to everything in the play.”

BLACK IS THE COLOUR
Samoan-born Ray Chong Nee is playing the title role in the 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello. He says the play has a complicated history for black actors: “It is only fairly recently, like in the past 50 years, that black men have regularly been able to play the role. Up until then it was white actors, sometimes wearing blackface make-up. Now the role has been claimed by black people. The issues that Shakespeare throws up in this play are still quite current. For example, I see a lot of Sudanese people in Melbourne going through a lot of issues with race.”

The Scanlon report certainly bears this out. When asked if they had experienced discrimination in the past 12 months, 77% of South Sudanese immigrants said yes. Similarly, 75% of Zimbabweans, 67% of Kenyans and 60% of Ethiopians.

In 16th Century England, Moorish refugees had arrived in London to escape persecution in Spain. Shakespeare would have witnessed discrimination towards these immigrants. Anxiety among the locals ran so high that, in 1596, Queen Elizabeth I passed an edict banishing “blackamoors brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are already to manie”.

IRRESISTIBLE
White women were romantically involved with black men in Shakespeare’s time. Journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says these unions caused consternation in many quarters: “Shakespeare dramatises and unsettles that moral panic. He made Othello an awesome figure; a black conqueror at a time when blackness was associated with death and evil.”

The relationship between Desdemona and Othello is initially an equal one, says Alibhai-Brown. “This is not a King Kong figure grabbing the young white girl, but an irresistible drawing together in unity.” Ray Chong Nee points out that Othello has partly won Desdemona’s heart with his exotic tales of far off places: “His words are so poetic and beautiful. Nobody else in the play uses the same sort of pentameter or imagery.”

Othello’s command of the local dialect is just one sign of his willingness to assimilate into Venetian society. Since he arrived in chains, he has also been baptised and bravely fought in war. But he is still kept at arms-length, something that Aibhai-Brown (a Ugandan-born Muslim living in the UK) can still relate to today: “Othello’s tragedy is that cultural surrender is not enough for most Venetians. They cannot ever truly embrace him. Desdemona represents the impossibility of colour-blind love and its utter fragility. My children, born here, think their colour doesn’t matter. I hope they are strong enough to bear the pain when they realise it does, always will.”

Indeed, as Ray Chong Nee succinctly puts it: “Until the divide between black and white is non-existent then this play still has relevance. It’s still incredibly powerful.”

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello is being performed in Canberra and Sydney – and is touring nationally – until 4 December 2016. See details here.

Andy McLean is a Sydney-based copywriter who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon. He frequently tweets and shares Shakespeare minutia from @1andymclean

INSIDE THE DEVIL’S MIND

IAGO LEAVES A QUESTION MARK LOOMING OVER THE STAGE AT THE END OF OTHELLO. IN ONE FINAL ACT OF BELLIGERENCE, HE REFUSES TO EXPLAIN HIS REASONS FOR CAUSING ALL THE HEARTBREAK AND BLOODSHED – FORCING US TO ASK OURSELVES: WHY DID HE DO IT?

BY ANDY MCLEAN

It’s a question that has vexed theatre goers for generations: Why does Iago make it his life’s mission to destroy Othello and bring down everyone else around him?

At the end of the play, Iago’s web of manipulation and murder is finally exposed to the other characters. Yet he leaves us with nothing more than this:
Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Make no mistake, Iago has earned his reputation as one of theatre’s most notorious villains. Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro describes Iago as “…a tsunami of evil that passes through the play,” and says Iago’s actions are akin to “someone who is performing brain surgery without anesthesia”. When audiences witness Iago’s treachery, they can’t help but ask what has driven him to this.

Pure evil

In Shakespeare’s day, morality plays often included characters who personified moral qualities like the Seven Deadly Sins. So one explanation for Iago’s despicable behaviour is that he is simply bad to the bone; created by Shakespeare to show audiences what Envy might look like in human form.

That might correlate with a point made about Iago in the 19th Century by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, describing the “motive-hunting of a motiveless malignancy”. Or as critic Jan Kott put it more than a century later: “Iago hates first, and only then seems to invent reasons for his hate.”

Today, we might describe somebody like this as a psychopath or sociopath; lacking emotion and incapable of empathy for those around them. Iago doesn’t appear to show any love for his wife Emilia, for example, nor any sympathy for the victims of his malice.

But Peter Evans, who is directing the 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello doesn’t buy this: “I think Iago understands jealousy perfectly. The brilliance with which he infects Othello’s mind could only come from somebody who has experienced that jealousy themselves. Iago is not a sociopath without feeling. I think he has a lot of feeling.”

Thwarted ambition

Few people know the inner workings of Iago’s mind better than those who have played him on stage. Yalin Ozucelik is Bell Shakespeare’s Iago this year. When asked about the character’s motives, Ozucelik points out: “The play starts with Iago saying to Rodrigo that he wants revenge on Othello for promoting Cassio instead of him. He says, ‘Three great ones of the city (In personal suit to make me his lieutenant)’. If what Iago says is true, then that’s a great embarrassment for him. Despite all the closeness that Othello has shared with him in battle, he’s been overlooked.”

Ewan McGregor concurs. He played Iago in the UK in 2007-8 and said at the time: “He’s fought with Othello in many different places in the world and I think Iago feels very strongly that he is the natural right-hand man.”

From what we know and hear of Cassio, it’s likely that he’s from a wealthier background than Iago. When Iago describes Cassio as a ‘mathematician’ he is perhaps alluding to him being something of a desk soldier from the officer class. From Iago’s point of view, Cassio has an unfair advantage over him just by fluke of birth. No wonder that this privileged rich boy would be promoted to lieutenant.

This military universe is vital to our understanding of Iago’s motives, says McGregor: “I think men in battle have an emotional connection with each other that I don’t think you get anywhere else… I think it’s like being in love. And the fact that Othello’s overlooked [Iago] – it’s like he’s smited Iago’s love and from then on he allows his hate to build.”

Thwarted affection

Iago wants to be the person closest to Othello, but there is a thin line between love and hate. Not only has Cassio supplanted Iago on the battlefield, but Othello’s attention is now focused on his new wife Desdemona too. To add insult to injury, Desdemona joins the men on their next military mission in Cyprus. Iago is furious, but realises that he can replace both Cassio and Desdemona in one devious stroke – by making Othello believe that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.

Some directors have sought to interpret Iago’s love for Othello as more than just platonic. Tyro Guthrie’s 1938 production did so at a time when Freudian interpretations of Shakespeare were all the rage, with Laurence Olivier as Iago.

Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber describes the climactic moment in Act 3 Scene 3 where Othello resolves with Iago to kill Desdemona and Cassio: “That is like a wedding on stage between Othello and Iago,” she says. “Othello has been completely bamboozled by Iago, and says ‘Now art thou my lieutenant’ and Iago says ‘I am your own forever’. That is kind of like a wedding vow. It’s often produced on stage nowadays with them both kneeling or them both holding hands.” However, Garber adds: “To say that it is homoerotic is not interesting one way or the other, because it is simply erotic. Iago’s relationship with Othello is very, very deep.”

Eroticism and sex is certainly an obsession for Iago but it is never joyous. He describes sex in base, bestial terms and continuously degrades it. At different points in the play, he airs suspicions that his wife has slept with Othello and with Cassio, though the audience witnesses no evidence of the kind. For Iago, sex is a corrosive and disgusting force, not to be trusted.

Raising the stakes

So there is a combination of possible motives that may start Iago down the path towards his despicable work. “But none of these potential motives seems either dominant or adequate enough to explain the absoluteness of his evil,” according to Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells.

Perhaps some of these motives are enough to start Iago gambling; taking calculated risks to bring Othello down. Iago begins betting, loses at first, then gets on a winning streak, and finds it impossible to stop. That would explain why he drags everybody else down, even after Othello has been brought to his knees, and named Iago as his lieutenant.

Peter Evans says Iago is a chancer: “It’s his ability to get away with stuff that just allows him to go to the next level and the next level. He thinks he’s a mastermind genius, but he’s actually petty-minded and not as smart as, say, Richard III. Iago is much messier. At every turn, he almost doesn’t get away with it.”

Yalin Ozucelik says Iago’s self-delusion runs deep. “He has a very high opinion of himself. He thinks there are two types of people in the world: the abusers and the abused. It’s very cut and dry for him. Mixed up in that is a huge sense of his own omnipotence or authority.”

In one sense, the play can be read as Iago’s quest to prove his world view is correct. Othello and Desdemona believe in higher virtues, such as loyalty and love, while Iago believes that people are just animals, where the weak suffer and only the strongest survive.

In many ways, the play’s conclusion vindicates Iago’s philosophy. He manages to destroy those around him who he considers to be foolish or weak. But there is a bleak irony for Iago here too, as Jan Kott points out: “Iago sets all the world’s evil in motion and falls victim to it in the end.” Iago has proved himself right, but in doing so he has doomed himself as well.

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello is being performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and is touring nationally – until 4 December 2016. See details here.

Andy McLean is a Sydney-based copywriter who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon. He frequently tweets and shares Shakespeare minutia from @1andymclean

 

VALIANT OTHELLO

IN 2007, RAY CHONG NEE VOWED THAT ONE DAY HE WOULD PLAY OTHELLO FOR BELL SHAKESPEARE. IN 2016, HE’S ABOUT TO DO PRECISELY THAT. WE TALKED TO HIM ABOUT THE JOURNEY SO FAR, AND THE ROAD AHEAD.

When did director Peter Evans first talk to you about playing Othello?
I can remember the exact moment when Peter floated the question last year. I was in Melbourne, the phone rang, and Peter said, “Would you be interested in playing Othello?” My heart leapt almost out of my mouth but I caught it, put it back down and said, “Yes”.

We talked about the context of what he wanted to do and how he saw it. And I revealed to him that in 2007 I was on the street in Sydney and I’d seen some banners hanging from lampposts advertising the Bell Shakespeare production of Othello with Wayne Blair. I distinctly remember looking at that banner and thinking: “One day, I’m going to do that play with that company”.

So when Peter called and asked me – that’s why my heart leapt up. I still can’t quite believe that it’s happening!

Rehearsals are not far away now. How are you feeling?
I’m very scared about it but I think that’s a good thing because it proves I care about the project. I’ve done a lot of preparation and I go through phases where I think I’m on track but, then again, I don’t want to get complacent.

Othello will tour nationally for six months. You were in the Bell Shakespeare Players in 2013, spending months performing in communities around the country. What did you learn from that experience that might help you this time around?
Being in The Players was quite physically demanding. We would do a maximum of three shows per day, and maybe a show in the evening too. Plus you had the car rides with your fellow cast mates. So in essence it would be nine or ten hours every day that you would have to be “switched on”.

We had to learn to look after our voices and look after ourselves physically. If there was an injury, we had to learn to perform particular actions differently. And we had to be very caring about each other. So what I learned in that tour was how to sustain myself over a long period of time.

What research have you done for Othello?
Preparing for any role usually involves familiarising myself with the script and the world of the play and I’m doing that. But with Othello, it’s been different too. It feels to me like my preparation has been everything in my life. I’ve been reflecting on how this boy from Samoa grew up to become a Samoan fellow in Australia 33 years later.

What excites you about this production?
This is not a European Othello. We’re talking about an Australasian Othello. So the culture I will bring into it is from the Pacific and the faces on the stage will be Australian.

A big part of me is very proud that I can represent my culture and the Pacific nations on the mainstage. The tour gives me the chance to reach places like Casula and to be able to invite my community and say, “Look my brown-skinned brothers and sisters: if you have a dream then you can do it. You can get educated. You can speak words from other tongues. You can do it”. In these cultures there is so much history and so many stories that are like Shakespeare’s but from a different place and a different time. For me, I’m excited about being a member of our community and being on stage sharing this story.

Othello is more than 400 years old. Why is it still relevant today?
Until the divide between black people and white people is non-existent, then this play still has relevance. And beyond the “race” word I would use the word “otherness”. We look at people differently whether they’re disabled, coloured, foreign, from a different socio-economic background etc. I also think there’s a lot to talk about regarding domestic violence in this play.

Othello is very much the flawed hero. The audience sympathises when he is the victim of racism and deceit, but later that turns to horror when he kills Desdemona.
We’re uncomfortable with what he does in the end, absolutely, but we can see how he gets there. He lives in a world of struggle, where he was born from royal blood, went into slavery and now his ambition has brought him to Venice. Ambition drives him but sometimes ambition can blind people too. And he is from a military background so there is the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder to consider.

As a man, I’m sickened by domestic violence and I don’t condone what he does in any way, shape or form. But I can understand the effects of racism. I can understand being with a white partner and that little jealousy that can happen. More often than not I’m surrounded by caucasian people and, I hate to say it, but sometimes I feel like the “token” or like something exotic. I can see where those little niggles can become seeds and how those seeds can grow.

What are you most looking forward to in the coming weeks?
Something that I really cherish about tours like this is being able to see lots of Australia that many people never get to see. And I’m also going to be acting with a great cast. I’ve worked with James Lugton before and I’ve seen Elizabeth Nabben on stage. I know Michael Wahr from Melbourne. All the cast are very exciting actors. They’re all very versed in the text. So I’m really looking forward to working with them.

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello will be performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and tour nationally – between July and December 2016. Details at Bellshakespeare.com.au

Interview by Andy McLean

DELIGHTING IN DESPAIR

FROM ROMEO AND JULIET TO OTHELLO, SHAKESPEARE’S TRAGEDIES ARE SEDUCTIVE DESPITE THEIR DARKNESS. OR PERHAPS, BECAUSE OF IT.

BY ANDY MCLEAN

Vendettas. Villainy. Violence. Broken hearts. And death. At first glance, Shakespeare’s tragedies don’t sound much like entertainment. Yet we flock to theatres around the world to witness the torment and devastation wreaked upon naïve lovers and noble warriors (not to mention less savoury characters).

We adore watching Romeo And Juliet, a tale of young lives cut short. Our eyes are helplessly glued to Othello as Iago betrays his friend. (No wonder that, during a 19th Century production starring William Macready, at the moment Othello seized Iago by the throat, a gentleman in the audience cried out, “Choke the devil! Choke him!”)

For this is what tragedy does. It makes you want to choke the devil; to intervene; to halt the turning of this miserable globe and to put everyone and everything back to rights.

And yet, at the same time, we delight in the drama. We can’t look away.

Try averting your eyes as Romeo and Juliet’s dreams turn to dust, or while Othello and Desdemona’s love is snuffed out. Our hearts break too when both sets of lovers die, lying side by side. Like the dead lovers, in Shakespearean tragedy hope and despair share the same bed.

THE FIRM HAND OF FATE
One thing is for sure: We can’t say we weren’t warned. The full title of the plays in the First Folio, published in 1623, were The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet and The Tragedie of Othello, the Moore of Venice. Their titles alone made it abundantly clear that things would not end well.

Then, just in case anyone was left in any doubt, at the start of Romeo And Juliet, Shakespeare had his Chorus tell us that “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” will only head in one direction:

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life,
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

In a way, Romeo and Juliet are already dead before we even meet them, says Oxford scholar Emma Smith in her Approaching Shakespeare podcast: “We know the pain is coming. It’s inexorable, unstoppable. There’s something mechanical about it.”

Yet in a strange way there is something comforting about that for audiences. Knowing the destiny of our heroes removes some of the anxiety for us, according to Smith. While we may want to intervene (and ‘Choke the devil!’) we are forced, in a sense, to enjoy the ride. “We just have to sit back and relax; there is nothing anyone can do. It’s a foregone conclusion. In a way, it’s less stressful to watch a tragedy where the fate of the characters is already sealed.”

CALAMITY OVERKILL?
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie, Romeo + Juliet elected to put the aforementioned words of the Chorus into the mouth of a TV newscaster. Entirely appropriate, given that TV news reports upon events that have already taken place, and can often seem like a litany of tragedies. Luhrmann’s approach underlines how we are still drawn to tragedy in modern society.

“In the 21st Century, the television, newspapers and internet all report tragedy after tragedy,” says Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber. “It has become the staple of our media diet. We hear of accidental tragedy, and purposeful tragedy. We hear bad news, we hear about people dying, people suffering, people losing things and so forth.”

Actor Damien Strouthos, who is playing Mercutio in Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 Romeo And Juliet, agrees: “All you have to do is look on the internet at what the top stories are, and they’re always tragic ones”.

Through modern media our exposure to real-life tragedy is, in some ways, just as great as it was as in Shakespeare’s day, when bear baiting and public executions attracted huge crowds of onlookers. But if we see tragedy every day in the media, why do we want to watch it on stage too?

“It’s a very good question and a hard one to answer,” says Strouthos. “I think it’s cathartic for us to watch the characters suffer and figure it out. When we see someone else experience it and figure problems out, it makes us feel that it will all be okay for us, or that it will all work itself out.”

Garber says Shakespeare provides audiences with a safe zone in which to witness extreme circumstances: “Tragedy is something that happens for us so that it doesn’t have to happen to us. We can enjoy the tragic experience because it is happening to someone else who we identify with but nevertheless whose separation we are able to maintain. So we survive, but they may die.”

Peter Evans is directing Romeo And Juliet and Othello for Bell Shakespeare in 2016. He says tragedy allows us to explore the darker reaches of our imaginations, though we would never want to go there in real life: “We all have those fantasies about the worst case scenarios in our own lives. In tragedy we can experience this with a group of people in a controlled environment. Society needs pressure valves and places where we can experience these things without actually having to do them. In the making of art, where somebody expresses something for you – even about something horrific – it is ironically quite an uplifting experience.”

THE MORAL OF THE STORIES
Othello and Romeo And Juliet teach some cruel lessons to their characters. All too late, Othello learns the error (and agonising cost) of his ways, just as the Capulet and Montague parents do. Watching the plays can be enlightening for audiences too, according to Anjna Chouhan from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: “In 1595, the poet Sir Philip Sidney argued that tragedy ‘openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue.’ So tragedy, Sidney argued, should be revealing. It should strip away all the decadence and superficiality, [and] plumb down to the depths of what makes us truly human.

“Sidney also said that tragedy ‘teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilded roofs are builded’. In other words, tragedy is not simply a lesson for the characters. It’s actually a cautionary and instructive tale for the audiences, as well.”

For example, Othello and Romeo And Juliet are rife with the same bigotry and prejudice that we still witness in many places across the world today. In the gut-wrenching finales of both plays, the consequences of these attitudes are laid bare for us to consider within the context of our own societies.

SUFFERING TOGETHER
So Shakespeare forces us to confront our own values and search within ourselves for the answers. Is Romeo’s slaying of Tybalt justified, given that he is avenging the death of his friend Mercutio? Does Iago deserve to die for his crimes? And the real kicker: How should we feel about Othello – a man who is the innocent victim of manipulation and racism, but also the perpetrator of horrific domestic violence?

Shakespeare makes these dilemmas all the more difficult because we grow to love his characters. As 20th Century English scholar A.C. Bradley wrote: “Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies Othello is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible. From the moment when the temptation of the hero begins, the reader’s heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation.”

Anjna Chouhan points out that Othello has to suffer for the audience to feel any kind of sympathy or disgust for his plight. “Something important has to be at stake in order for the loss of it to seem truly horrific,” she says. “[Othello] follows the linear trajectory of a tragic hero who starts out in an exalted position as General of the Venetian army. He endures suffering, largely of the psychological kind, destroys the thing that he loves most, and ends the play by dying. If we didn’t care about Othello in some way, his downfall wouldn’t seem remotely tragic.”

So our emotional investment in the heroes ties us to them, and means that we suffer with them. We are their silent witness.

Peter Evans says Shakespeare is skilled at putting the audience “on the same side” as his characters: “In Romeo And Juliet, for example, we have the voyeuristic experience of the soliloquies. We feel we are a part of what’s happening. In the balcony scene, Romeo invites us to look at Juliet and be part of his fantasy for her, and then she invites us into her thoughts about him. We’re with him and we’re with her. At that point, she doesn’t know that he’s present but we do. Then, when she does realise he is there, we experience a shared joy that she is catching up and we’re now all together. It’s an astonishing series of progressions to make us feel part of their love.”

The passion we feel for the characters is what makes us hope against hope that, somehow, our heroes can escape their own destruction. Shakespeare teases us throughout Romeo And Juliet with ‘if only’ moments, where opportunities for a happy ending are dangled in front of us – and then snatched away: The Friar sends a letter to Romeo, explaining that Juliet’s apparent death has, in fact, been faked – but the letter never reaches the young hero. A grief-stricken Romeo dashes back to Verona, finds Juliet lying apparently dead, poisons himself and dies – just moments before his young wife awakens. For the audience, it makes for compulsive viewing.

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL?
Our support of Romeo and Juliet feels well placed, given that they are largely the victims of the piece. But in Othello, Shakespeare plays a devious little trick, making us relish the villain’s antics too. “Othello is much more troubling because of that,” says Peter Evans. “Iago has enormous charm and the audience actually wills him along. That’s part of the skill of Shakespeare. The audience wants Iago to keep poking the other characters. He keeps getting away with it and I think the audience delights in that.”

So at what point do we then decide, as an audience, that Iago has gone too far? “I think it’s the death of Rodrigo,” says Evans. “Iago pretends to look after Rodrigo but instead kills him. My instinct is that the audience thinks, ‘We’ve loved watching you mess with that naïve guy’ but the moment Rodrigo is stabbed and realises he’s been had, I think the audience then feels enough is enough. At that point, the story is unraveling on Iago. Then the play slows right down and Shakespeare takes us through this tortuous horror show that leads to the death of Desdemona. The more I work on the play, the more painful I think it is – and yet it’s undeniably popular.”

TO ERR IS HUMAN
Another reason Shakespearean tragedy resonates is because in all of Shakespeare’s tear-jerkers human beings are the agents of their own downfall. The idea that we are “in the hands of the Gods” might apply in Greek tragedy, but in Shakespeare it is the impulsiveness of Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio that hastens the characters towards their deaths. And it’s the despicable antics of Iago, coupled with Othello’s flaws, that scupper any chance of a happy ending for them.

The tragedy comes from a mismatch of individuals with their situation, argues Sir Jonathan Bate. In his essay ‘What is tragedy?’ he writes: “Imagine Hamlet in Othello’s situation and Macbeth in Hamlet’s. Would Hamlet be duped by Iago’s story about the handkerchief? Of course not. He would endlessly speculate on every possibility and devise a scheme to test the evidence –perhaps he’d put on a play about adultery and watch for Desdemona’s reaction. He’d soon discover that Iago is not to be trusted, and there would be no tragedy. Now imagine Macbeth commissioned with Hamlet’s task. Would he hesitate and agonise? No, he’d go straight to Claudius and unseam him from the nave to the chops before you could say Danish bacon. Again, there would be no tragedy.”

Of course, there is also that curious quirk: the metatheatre of it all. As Garber points out: “When we sit in the audience we know the play will, in fact, be performed again the next night. So in a sense, the characters do live to see another day. Shakespeare is conscious of that. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Bottom plays Pyramus, we see him say, “Thus die I, thus, thus, thus” and then he bounces up again and he asks if we’d like an epilogue. [In theatre] the lover who dies can leap up again. Tragedy has that reparative effect upon audiences.”

So despite all the corruption, broken hearts and death that we see on the stage, we experience a shared relief at the end. As Peter Evans points out: “When the applause begins, and the actors stand facing the audience, it’s a cathartic moment for everybody. We love watching the actors in all their weeping, sweaty, snotty glory. It’s a visceral experience and part of the contract that the audience and the actors have with one another. In that moment, everyone in the room is saying ‘Let’s be together’.”

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo And Juliet is being staged at the Arts Centre Melbourne until 1 May. Details at Bellshakespeare.com

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello will be performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and tour nationally – between July and December 2016. Details at Bellshakespeare.com

Professor Marjorie Garber is the author of several books and essays about Shakespeare. Read more about her work at marjoriegarber.com

Andy McLean is a journalist, copywriter and magazine publisher.
@1andymclean