All theatrical artists, even the greatest, should have engraved upon their memories the following words, which were written three centuries ago yet which still today remain the most perfect and the most modern lesson on acting that has ever been devised.
Here is the lesson:
'Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines: Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I might say, whirlwind of your passion you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings…I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-Herods Herod…
'Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'ersteph not the modesty of nature; for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as t'were, the mirror up to nature…
'O, there be players that I have seen play - and heard others praise, and that highly - not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Chrisitian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought. Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.'
These words are Shakespeare's (Hamlet, Act III, scene ii) and three centuries have passed - not a year more, not a year less. [Modern scholarship, however places Hamlet in the years 1600-1601.] We have thought it useful to remind the artists of these words before indicating the main outlines of the characters of Otello very broadly and roughly so as to make ourselves understood by all who may read us.
Let us begin with the one who gives his name to the tragedy.
A Moor, general of the Venetian republic. He has passed his fortieth year. He presents the brave, loyal figure of a man of arms. Simple in his bearing and in his gestures, imperious in his commands, cool in his judgement - the scene that follows the duel in Act One should suffice to reveal these gifts of temperament. This act shows him in all of his strength, in all his glory, in all his radiance.
Jealousy! The word has been spoken. Iago has first stabbed the Moor to the heart and then put his finger on the wound. Otello's torture has begun. The whole man changes: he was wise, sensible, and now he raves; he was strong and now he waxes feeble; he was just and upright and now he will commit a crime; he was strong and hale and now he groans and falls about and swoons like one who has taken poison or been smitten by epilepsy. Indeed Iago's words are poison injected into the Moor's blood. The fatal progress of that moral blood-poisoning should be expressed in all the fullness of its horror. Otello should undergo, phase by phase, all the most fearful torments of the human soul - doubt, fury, spiritual overthrow. Otello is the supreme victim of the tragedy and of Iago. If personification of an abstract idea were not a frigid, false, puerile and altogether stale artifice in the theatre one could say that Otello is Jealousy and Iago Envy.
Iago is envy. Iago is a villain. Iago is a critic. In the cast-list Shakespeare describes him thus: Iago, a villain, and adds not a word more. In the square in Cyprus Iago says of himself, 'I am nothing if not critical.' He is a mean and spiteful critic; he sees the evil in mankind and in himself. 'I am a villain because I am human.' He sees evil in Nature, in God. He commits evil for evil's sake. He is an artist in deceit. The cause of his hatred for Otello is not very serious compared to the vengeance he extracts from it. Otello has appointed Cassio Captain in his place. But this is enough; if it were more serious than his villainy would have been the less; this cause is sufficient to make him hate the Moor, envy Cassio and act as he does. Iago is the real author of the drama; it is he who fabricates the threads, gathers them up, combines them and weaves them together.
The crassest of mistakes, the most vulgar error into which any artist attempting this role can possibly fall is to play him as a kind of human demon; to give him a Mephistophelean sneer and make him shoot Satanic glances everywhere. Such an artist would make it all too plain that he had understood neither Shakespeare nor the drama which we are discussing.
Every word spoken by Iago is on the human level - a villainous humanity if you'd like, but still human. He should be young and well-favoured. Shakespeare makes him out to be twenty-eight. Cinzio Giraldi, the author of the story from which Shakespeare derived his masterpeice, says of Iago: 'An ensign of a most handsome presence, but of the most villainous nature that the world has ever known.'
He must be handsome and appear genial and open and falsely bonhomous; everyone believes him to be honest except his wife who knows him well. If he did not possess great charm and an appearance of honesty he could not be the consummate deceiver that he is.
One of his talents is the faculty he possessses of changing his personality according to the person to whom he happens to be speaking, so as to deceive them or to bend them to his will.
Easy and genial with Cassio; ironic with Roderigo; apparently good-humored, respectful and humbly devoted towards Otello; brutal and threatening with Emilia; obsequious to Desdemona and Lodovico. Such are the basic qualities, the appearance and the various facets of this man.
We would beg the ladies who are called upon to play this role not to roll their eyes, wriggle their arms and bodies or take strides ten foot long, or try for so-called 'effects.' If the artist is intelligent and has a respect for art, she will achieve these effects without trying, and if she is not intelligent she will strive for them in vain. Features, expression, diction - these are the three sources of the art of conveying dramatic emotion. Apart from those exceptional cases where horror borders on excess the whole range of joy and sorrow should be capable of being expressed without distorting the features, rolling the eyes or caricaturing the diction. A feeling of love, purity, nobility, docility, ingenuousness and resignation should pervade the most chaste and harmonious figure of Desdemona in the highest degree. The more simple and gentle her movements and gestures, the greater the emotion they will arouse in the spectator. The charm of youth and beauty will complete the impression.
Iago's wife; devoted to Desdemona. She hates her villainous husband and fears him, and while she submits to his violence and bullying she knows the wickedness of his soul. But at the end she reveals his infamy with all the strength and courage of a downtrodden creature that rebels.
Captain of the Venetian Republic. Handsome, very young, gay, witty, smart and successful with women of easy virtue; he is somewhat obsessed with his passing affairs and a little vain; but he is a brave soldier who knows how to defend himself with spirit, sword in hand: a skillful fencer and a jealous guardian of his own honour.
A young Venetian, rich and elegant, hopelessly and platonically in love with Desdemona, quite without her knowledge. He is a visionary, a simple creature, a dreamer who allows himself to be cheated and dominated by Iago. Iago makes use of him as a passive and docile instrument for the accomplishment of his designs.
Senator of the Venetian Republic, Ambassador to Cyprus. Of grave deportment though still youthful. He has all the appearance of a man worthy of the high office to which he has been called. He has great authority both in his looks and in his speech.
Otello's predecessor as Governor of Cyprus. A man of war, faithful to his duty, a good swordsman, a brave soldier, and a strict officer.
Copyright © 1996, Stephen L. Parker.