Review : David Zwirner’s Othello with Chris Ofili

My mom loved a good yard sale. Whenever she saw something with the word Shakespeare on it she’d snatch it up, rarely even knowing what it was, and bring it to me the next time we saw each other. “You probably already have it,” she’d say, “but I got it for a quatta.” (That’d be twenty five cents outside of New England :)) Inevitably it was a collection of the sonnets or a small bound copy of a single play, something that I did already have several of. And each time I’d say to her, “Shakespeare isn’t like other books. It’s not just about the words with each book, it’s about how a particular book chooses to present the words.”

I was reminded of that story when two books from David Zwirner Books arrived. I now have new copies of Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As far as the Shakespeare goes? It’s the same words we all know and love. Well organized and presented, plenty of whitespace, line numbers down the left, glossary on the right. It’s a nice, easy read – and I can’t say that about every book, I’ve seen some real doozies of a teeny tiny font that I could maybe read comfortably twenty years ago.

Then it dawned on me, that’s not what these books are about. David Zwirner is an art gallery. Each of these books showcases the work of a particular artist, using a particular Shakespeare play as inspiration. They are little artworks in their own right. Why have just one image inspired by a play, when you can make a whole series? And if you’ve got a whole series of images inspired by a play, why not decorate the play with those images?

This makes for an interesting challenge for me, because I know nothing about art. I can say what I like and don’t like, but I’d hate to say something stupid or worse, offensive.

So let’s start with Chris Ofili’s Othello. There’s a clear statement being made here right from the opening essay, referring to Othello as a problem play (“doubly so,” even) and referring to it, several times, as a “white fantasy of blackness.” I don’t know how to speak to this, and I don’t want to cloud my description of the book with my opinions. As the saying goes, I understand that I will never understand.

The artwork is all stark white line drawings on solid black background. Each representation is Othello’s expressive face, with a glimpse at what he is thinking. Sometimes he looks happy, sometimes angry, sometimes sad.

I would love to just get all the images from the book and display them here, and we could discuss which images goes with which scene. Or animate them like a flipbook to watch what happens in Othello’s mind as the action plays out. I think that would look kind of cool, actually.

Stay tuned for part two where we look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

Achievement Unlocked (A Geeklet Story)

Both my two oldest now are studying Shakespeare — Othello for one, Romeo and Juliet for the other — so the content comes so fast and furious it’s hard to keep up.  My oldest has to write a paper on Iago, in fact, because they finished the play when I wasn’t looking.

“That’s what I was going to tell you,” she says.  “I had to look something up about Iago for research … and you came up.  That was weird.”

Sure enough, if you Google “Othello’s ancient” here’s what comes up:

https://www.shakespearegeek.com/2011/01/othello-ancient.html

The funny thing is that there in the car I said, “It means his right-hand man, right?”  Which is exactly what I wrote in 2011.  And she said, “No, it means flag bearer,” which is also what I learned in 2011 🙂

 

M Night Shakespeare

Yesterday I wrote about how it’s ok – nay, expected – that you know the ending of a Shakespeare play, but you still go see it again and again, because it’s about how they tell the story to get there.  The only caveat to this rule would be those movies where it’s all about “the twist” (an M Night Shyamalan production).  I noted that Shakespeare doesn’t really do twists.

But what if he did?  I started wondering, which plays could be presented such that you don’t see it coming until the big reveal at the end.

Twelfth Night is an obvious example. What if we leave out Viola at the beginning, and pick it up with Cesario?  Then you’ve got a classic romantic comedy where Cesario’s lusting after Orsino, Olivia is lusting after Cesario, Orsino’s lusting after Olivia but kind of really confused about his feelings for Cesario, and so on.  Enter this guy Sebastian, who mentions a shipwreck and searching for his lost “sibling” and we think, “Aha! Twins! This will be good!”  But then we get to the big finale where we find out Cesario is actually Viola.  Cue happy endings and wedding music.

But I think it’s cheating to just do the easy comedy. Could we do it with a tragedy?  I was wondering – if we took out all Iago’s soliloquies and behind the scenes machinations, could we make a twist out of it?  Basically tell the whole story from Othello’s perspective, rather than Iago’s.  He has to deal with his new father in law’s fury. He has to deal with his right-hand man Cassio getting into drunken bar fights. All the while he puts growing faith in loyal Iago, who hates to say this, but who thinks that maybe Cassio might be fooling around with Othello’s wife.

I think this one would be much harder to splice together, but imagine the payoff at the end?  Suddenly Emilia comes out of nowhere to unveil that it was her husband all along?  Then the husband f%^&*(ng STABS HER?! And then, when they catch him, he’s all, “Yup, not going to explain myself. At all. You get nothing.”  That would be legendary.

Now I’m sad that knowing the real ending, I could never get to see how that would actually pay off, even if they made a movie exactly like that tomorrow.

This has more potential than I thought. What other plays could we twist?  The only rule is that you can’t add more original content.  If Shakespeare didn’t answer the question, we can’t answer it.  We can’t, for instance, learn that it was actually Gertrude that killed her husband (or Ophelia).  You have to stay as close the original material as possible, just mess with how the audience gets to see it.

 

Weird Flexeth, But Ok (A Geeklet Story)

Cleopatra was definitely not baked into a pie.

Be me, on a typical school day, bustling around getting the kids breakfast as they get ready for school.  My middle announces, “Did I tell you my Shakespeare story?”

Everything stops, of course.  Well, more to the point everything I’m doing stops, while my wife kind of gives me the, “Seriously?” look since stuff’s still got to get done.

“Do tell,” I reply. “The very fact that you brought it up means this is going to be a blog post.”

“Ok,” she says, putting down her spoon. “Well, my friends and I the other day are talking, and somehow Shakespeare comes up, you know.”

“Sure, sure. I know the feeling.”

“And then my friend is all,” cue dripping fawning voice, “Oh, I *love* Shakespeare, I just *love* Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer’s Night’s Dream!” At this point she switches to brainy smirk, rolls up her sleeves, and begins.  “Well, I said to her, do you know Othello? Hmm?  How about Winter’s Tale? Or Titus Androkinus?”

My oldest and I exchange a glance and a laugh at that one.  Middle continues, “Have *you* ever read the one where the husband bakes his wife into a pie? Hmmm???”

“Wait, what?” I ask.

“That’s Cleopatra,” says my oldest.

“Wait, WHAT?”  I ask.

“Isn’t there one about Cleopatra and her husband?”

Antony and Cleopatra, yes?”

“Isn’t that the one she’s talking about?”

“…???…NO?!”

It’s funny how sometimes the facts get garbled.  I explain that Titus baked the sons of his enemy into a pie.  I still have no idea where they got baking his wife – nor the connection with Antony and Cleopatra.

Iago, Not Really Such A Bad Guy?

As regular readers may know my daughter is in her first real Shakespeare class, so we get to have regular discussions about my favorite subject and it almost always results in a blog post.  Technically the class is only half Shakespeare, as it is really “Monsters in British Literature” and The Tempest was one of the topics, which makes this that much more interesting, because Othello isn’t normally part of the class.

So she’s got a writing assignment where she’s to pick a real person (can’t be fictional) that society sees as a monster, and then take a position whether to defend or rebut that argument, using what they’ve learned in class about the “definition” of what it means to be a monster.

We’ve been going back on forth on what (or who) she might pick, when she says to me, “One student did do Iago, though.” I think that may have been for a slightly different definition of the assignment as he’s clearly fictional.  She continued, “But he argued that Iago’s not a monster.”

“Tough argument,” I say.  Normally I’m driving while we have these conversations so I have to keep my eyes on the road.  “Not really sure there’s any evidence on behalf of Iago being a nice guy.”

“That’s the thing!” my daughter responded, “Apparently the teacher read it and said, hmmm, makes you think. Like he actually had a convincing argument, at least to get her to say that much!”

“Yeah, I’ma need you to get me that paper,” I said.

Upon which my daughter freaked out.  “DO NOT EMAIL MY TEACHER, DADDY!” she commanded.  “I know that’s totally something you would do.”

“Yeah, you’re right, there.”

“Please don’t. You can’t just go asking for a random student’s paper.”

“Ok, then you do it.”

“I CAN’T DO IT EITHER!”

“Then I guess we’re gonna have to go Mission Impossible on this one, because I need to see what that argument was.  I’m thinking we lower you into the room on cables, thread you through the laser security, and bam! You get to the file cabinet, you take some quick pictures of his homework, then we yank you out of there. No one’s the wiser.”

“Seriously, Daddy.  You’re not going to email her, are you?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that,” I replied.  “Besides, I’m going to get a blog post out of it either way.”

And here we are!  If we start with the premise that somebody put forth a reasonably convincing “Iago’s not such a bad guy” argument…what could it possibly have been?  Bardfilm sent me a piece from Arden edition which basically takes the position that we should assume everything Iago says is true — being a soldier is all that he knows how to do, it is his life, he seems himself as unfairly passed up for promotion by an unworthy candidate for all the wrong reasons, etc…  It goes on to say that we should assume that, even if Othello isn’t sleeping with Iago’s wife, the important thing to take away is that Iago believes it.  Iago isn’t just making some sort of alibi for his actions.

Personally I don’t see it. And even if we did believe that, it’s kind of like arguing first-degree murder versus third-degree murder. From the start he does show himself to be more sociopathic than that, going right through Roderigo and Cassio like they’re not even people.

<shrug> Anybody feel good taking Iago’s side? See a possible argument that we’re missing?  My daughter has the same teacher for a pure Shakespeare class next semester as well, where they will be reading Othello, so if it so happens that this topic comes up again I will be sure to revisit.