From Script to Screen – The Maddening World of Iago in Parker’s ‘Othello’ (1995)

From the first scene of Shakespeare’s play Othello, readers are aware of Iago’s plans to destroy Othello by ruining his relationship with Desdemona, creating a situation of dramatic irony. Readers are therefore conscious of the purpose behind Iago’s every action, how truly narcissistic and cruel ‘honest’ Iago really is. Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony creates a feeling of responsibility within a reader, as we are aware of Iago’s motives but powerless to alter the events of the play. The fact the reader is in the know of Iago’s thoughts and feelings also serves to form a sort of bond between the reader and Iago, making Iago the most engaging character. Since the Oliver Parker film Othello is based upon the original play by William Shakespeare, there are not many variations in narrative. This similarity in narrative enables the film adaptation to incorporate the presence of dramatic irony in the play. Although Oliver Parker chose to reduce a considerable chunk of spoken text from the film, these areas were replaced by alternative visual representations, informing the audience of Iago’s plans without having to replicate all of Iago’s lengthy soliloquies. In this way, the director was able to incorporate elements of dramatic irony through a more visual medium.

Iago is the only character throughout the play to perform multiple soliloquies directly to the reader, speaking his thoughts as if the audience were an accomplice in his scheming. This direct communication between character and audience, a breaking of the fourth wall, creates an atmosphere of involvement in the reader, almost as if the reader were a character in the plot itself. Being the only ‘character’ aware of Iago’s true intentions, the audience becomes involuntary entangled in Iago’s plot. Use of cinematography during Iago’s soliloquies serves to further draw the audience into the story.The camera is always eye level with Iago during his soliloquies, as if the audience were a character in the film sitting with Iago in that moment. The close proximity of the camera brings about an atmosphere of conspiracy, as the audience feels physically closer and therefore more involved with Iago’s plot.Fire is often present in many of Iago’s soliloquies, causing changes in lighting, creating an allusion to the devil and adding to the presence of evil.

Othello contains multiple scenes full of contradiction, serving to symbolize Iago’s simultaneous playing of the roles of both a scheming devil and honest angel. “Poor and content is rich, and rich enough, but riches fineless is as poor as winter to him that ever fears he shall be poor” (IV.iv.172-174). This line spoken by Iago to Othello is a paradox itself, but also reflects the more general paradox of Iago comforting Othello after he had been the one to cause him sorrow. The effect of paradox is achieved through use of editing and cinematography in the film adaptation of Othello.At 35:54 the scene ends shortly after Iago ends his “How am I then a villain?” monologue with Iago covering the camera with his hand, causing the scene to black out. The next scene begins a few second after, with Iago lifting his hand off the camera lens, revealing the arrival of Roderigo. No sooner had Iago disclosed his plans to ruin Othello’s life does he promise Roderigo Desdemona’s love while the audience is clearly aware he has no intention of keeping said promise, presenting a very ironic paradox. The short transition between scenes serves to demonstrate Iago’s ability to easily switch roles, leaving Iago’s confession to evil clear in the audience’s mind as he plays the part of an angel. Another paradox is through the use of cinematography, where as Othello proclaims Iago’s honesty and embraces him, the camera turns to show Iago’s facial expression of triumph and mockery. Although Iago plays the role of faithful ensign, the camera reveals to the audience the true emotions that Othello does not know.

Every one of Iago’s soliloquies create an atmosphere of suspense, as the reader anticipates Iago’s actions, and waits for a character to discover and thwart his plans.A tone of suspense is also reinforced as readers are certainly aware of Iago’s plans, but not the effect this may have on the other characters in the play. A reader would constantly ask themselves whether Othello would believe Iago’s claims, whether Roderigo will reveal what he knows of Iago’s plans, whether Cassio would decide to throw away the handkerchief before Othello sees it, and so on. The use of background music and dialogue adds to the overall feeling suspense and build up of tension in the film adaptation of Othello. Intense and fast paced background music serves to excite the audience, putting them at the edge of their seat in a scene that otherwise wouldn’t have been as suspenseful.

Variations in volume of dialogue demonstrates levels of tension, as loud exclamations in otherwise relatively quiet scenes serve as crisis points where tension is at its highest. Lack of music may also cause suspense, which is evident in Act IV scene i, where Othello slaps Desdemona across the face. There is no music present, as background music would distract the audience from the fluctuations in dialogue. Also, the silence adds to the rising action, exaggerating the resounding crack of Othello’s slap. The lack of background music after the slap also serves to represent the general shock of both the characters in the scene as well as the audience.

J.L. Austin through Emilia’s Speech in Othello: Powerfully Feminist or Just Ironic?

Emilia’s monologue in Othello is the closest to a feminist manifesto that Shakespeare has written, as well as revered as one of the most powerful speeches in the play. As the wife of the villain, Iago, her hidden bitterness boils over when she says that husbands are usually to blame when their wives cheat on them. In the film version of Othello, directed by Oliver Parker in 1995, the role of Emilia is played by a woman, which revives the power of her speech. While the film’s illocutionary force makes a larger impact, especially for a more modern audience, J.L Austin, author of How to Do Things with Words, would deem the speech infelicitous due to its inability to happen and the culture of the time.

In both the play and the film, Desdemona asks Emilia if there are women who abuse their husbands in such an obscene way by committing adultery. Emilia answers yes, for cruel husbands are to blame. She believes when husbands abuse their wives, both physically and emotionally, women will stray. Then, Emilia breaks the fourth wall: “Let husbands know/Their wives have sense like them” (act 4, scene 3, lines 104-105). The first part of the utterance is performative utterance because it conveys no information, and performs the action of allowing husbands to know their wives have senses and feelings as well. The utterance does not ‘describe’ or ‘report’ or constate anything, and is not true or false. It fits the constraints of J.L Austin’s definition of performative utterances in How To Do Things With Words: “The uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which again would not normally be described as, or as ‘just,’ saying something” (Austin, 5). Emilia is not ‘just saying’ these lines; she has the serious intent of retaliating against women’s oppression in marriage. Contrastingly, the second part can be considered constative, because it states the information that women have senses like their husbands. Though Austin blurs the lines between constative and performative because all constatives do something too. In this case, the constative conveys the recognition of justice for women.

Austin continues: “I mean that actions in general (not all) are liable, for example, to be done under duress, or by accident, or owing to this or that variety of mistake, say, or otherwise unintentionally” (21). Austin wants to keep illocutionary effects tied to the speaker’s intention, and does not want to consider an unintentional speech, so illocutionary force refers to what the speaker intends to do in saying something. In her speech, Emilia intends to inform the audience, specifically men/husbands, that women deserve respect because they share the same desires and affections.

Despite her serious intent and strong illocutionary force, Emilia’s monologue is overall infelicitous. Unfortunately, the utterance would not fit into Austin’s six points, since one is that the utterance must be real, not on stage or fiction. Whether it can be applied to ‘true/false’ criteria of performatives is uncertain because the implication of belief may not be sincere. She knew Iago had malevolent intentions yet remained loyal by giving him the handkerchief, which would make the statement false. On the other hand, she could be just another victim of abuse like Desdemona, which would make the statement true. What makes Emilia’s speech truly infelicitous is what Austin defines as a misapplication, stating that “there is a misinvocation of a procedure – either because there is, speaking vaguely, no such procedure, or because the procedure in question cannot be made to apply in the way attempted. Among them, we may reasonably christen the second sort – where the procedure does exist all right but can’t be applied as purported – misapplications” (17). Emilia’s procedure lies not so much in the illocutionary force, but the perlocutionary effect of having the effect on the audience, speaking to them and influencing them. Yet when examining the cultural and historical context of the play, Emilia’s monologue is ironic because her role would be played by a man, thus destroying the feminist ideals. In Austin’s terms, the procedure could not be applied as purported.

Viewed in modern times with Parker’s film version, Emilia’s speech warrants an impactful illocutionary force by calling out the double standard of gender when played by a female actor. However, the infelicitous misapplication lies in the actual cultural and historical context of the play, and will never happen. Both Iago and Othello are blind to their wives’ true feelings and intentions. With that knowledge, her monologue is ultimately flawed.