“Othello” and “O”: Comparing Themes of Jealousy and Power
Context and textual form construct ideas that remain perpetual throughout all societies, yet the values behind these ideas differ in nature. Shakespeare’s play, the tragedy Othello, and its contemporary counterpart, Tim Blake Nelson’s film “O”, expresses themes of power and jealousy that remain consistent in both texts, but the justification and motive of these acts vary in a modern context.
Racism is used a form of power in Othello. Consisting of status and respect, Iago’s desire for power is disclosed when he says “I follow him to serve my turn upon”, implying that he is only obeying his commander and ‘friend’ Othello in his self-serving ambition for authority. Iago’s anger is directed at Othello and Cassio, who was promoted to lieutenant instead of him. Believing Cassio to be inexperienced, Iago plots against him and Othello. Iago’s hatred of Othello also compelled by racism, highlighted through the repetition of “the Moor” and other racial slurs like “sooty bosom” and “thick-lips” in reference to Othello, the animal motif “Barbary horse”, “neigh to you”,”jennets for germans” and “coursers for cousins”, claiming that Desdemona and Othello’s children will be barbaric and beastly. Utilizing the concept of fear of the unknown (Othello’s exoticness), Iago gains support in his plot from Roderigo and Brabantio when he declares Othello used “chains of magic” and “foul charms”.to win his daughter, playing into the stereotype that black people are practisers of magic. However this is juxtaposed in the following scene when the Duke calls Othello “valiant Moor”, illuminating the importance of skill, rather than prestige. This is also an ironic oxymoron as, during the Elizabethan era, Moors were viewed as untrustworthy, whereas in reality, Iago is the deceptive one, establishing the control he has. Iago employs xenophobia as a power structure to manipulate others.
In the film “O”, power is linked to physical aptitude, domination and driven by jealousy due to its modern, high school context. Hugo’s – Iago’s modern counterpart – ambition for power, while still directed at Odin and Mike (the adaptations of Othello and Cassio), is provoked by his father, Duke, the coach of their basketball team, who he is emotionally distant from, revealed in his coldness towards his son when he award of MVP to Odin, claiming that “I love him like my own son”. Hugo also desires the power Odin displays in their basketball game through the aerial shot focusing on him, positioned in the centre of the crowd. Replacing the asides and soliloquies voiceovers are employed to divulge Hugo’s vindictive objective – to assert his sovereignty over others. The juxtaposition of the purity of the doves, representing the innocent people he manipulates and the use of non-diegetic music from the Othello opera, which sounds pure and calming shockingly contrasts with the hawk motif, a predatory beast symbolising Hugo, and the rap music, firmly reinforces Hugo’s corruption and deceptiveness. As the film progresses, the audience views Hugo stealing the school’s hawk, which is blinded, foreshadowing Odin’s obviousness, allowing him to be exploited by his “friend”.
Iago weaponised Othello’s jealousy against him, inciting Othello’s revenge becoming the catalyst of Othello’s downfall. Falsely pretending to be his friend, he confronts Othello about his suspicion of Desdemona and warns Othello against “the green-eyed monster which doth mock”, a metaphor for the monstrous deeds Othello will enact. Green is universally a symbolism of jealousy and envy. Iago juxtaposes and fulfills the foreshadowing of Brabantio’s line “She has deceived her father and may thee”, only heightening his unease. In fact, he elicits a jealousy-induced, epileptic fit out of Othello by claiming Cassio boasted about sex with Desdemona. At this point, envy is consuming Othello’s mind, denoted in the repetition of “lie/lie with her?/lie on her?”. Othello’s verse changes into prose as his dialogue becomes nonsensical. The handkerchief is a metaphor for Desdemona’s and Othello’s love in his mind, as it is red, symbolising the passion they once had for each other, but in (supposedly) giving it to Cassio, it represents Desdemona’s infidelity. When Othello confronts Desdemona about the lost handkerchief, he claims it was constructed from magic, “there’s magic in the web of it”, is also a referral to the belief that he had charmed her through magic, a racial stereotype perpetuated by Brabantio’s xenophobic beliefs. Iago utilised Othello’s love and passion for Desdemona against him, provoking his descent into disgrace and ruin.
However, in “O”, Hugo’s envy of Odin is more complex, he desires to actually be Odin. Hugo is always positioned on the outside of the group when they win the match, the mid shot depicting his tense body language coupled with the close up of Hugo’s hurt face when his father informs the school that he loves Odin like his son illustrates the jealousy and disappointment Hugo feels, compelling the audience to feel sympathetic towards him. During this scene, the hawk also circles above the match. If the hawk if metaphorical for Hugo, then this reaffirms his distinct separation from the rest of his team. Hugo’s longing to be like Odin is established further when he goes to get steroids from a drug dealer in an effort to enhance his physical skill. The non-diegetic music playing is rap, a stereotypical “black” genre and the lyrics of the song “ride with us” both expose his hunger to be like Odin in order to be recognised by his father, but ultimately fails, established when Hugo is called to have dinner with his father through the positioning of the two. Duke is hidden behind a wall, conjugated with the long shot that positions the audience further away from the action, like Hugo is, this indicates the distance between them. Framed by the doorway, the dialogue between them is professional, denoting Duke’s treatment of Hugo as a student, rather than his son. They only talk about Odin, which is what inspired Hugo’s jealousy and deception all along
Othello and it’s modern adaption “O” both convey similar themes and ideas, like power and jealousy, that are universal throughout history, but the values that motivate people to act on these ideas change in various contexts.
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