Yesterday I had a random hankering for some Shakespeare. Weird craving, I know, but it just hits me every once in a while. However, I feel like I can’t fully appreciate any of his work by simply reading it. So what I do is grab my giant collection of his plays, plug in either a film or dramatized audio version of whichever play I’ve chosen, and read along. Shakespeare never intended for his work to be read; it was written to be performed. Since it was a rainy afternoon, I could afford to devote three hours to simultaneously reading and listening to Othello, and it was by far the most I’ve ever enjoyed this particular play.
I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (it was a requirement for my undergrad degree), but I’ve never really connected to his tragedies. Even as a teacher, works like Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear were works to be trudged through, and I tried to make them as painless as possible for my students, skipping them all together when I could in favor of lighter works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (my favorite) and Much Ado About Nothing. But I thoroughly enjoyed Othello this go round. Whether that’s due to being older or not having to teach it, or because the audio drama I found was incredible, or a combination of all the above, it was an absolute pleasure to read. Even if I knew it was all going to end horribly.
As I stated above, the fully dramatized audio version of Othello I stumbled upon was absolutely exquisite. It was a production from London’s Donmar Warehouse (and is available as a free download here), and featured a phenomenal voice cast including Ewan McGregor, Tom Hiddleston, Kelly Reilly, Michelle Fairley, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello. It was pretty incredible to hear young Obi-Wan, Loki, Mary Watson, Catelyn Stark, and Solomon Northrup all together as one cast, losing themselves in rolls that were penned centuries ago.
Something that I find amusing every time I revisit anything Shakespearean is how tightly linked his name has become with high-brow entertainment. Because nothing could have been further from the truth during his lifetime. His humor is rude and ribald, and always has been. If he were alive today, his social media would be filled with rude jokes and NSFW pics, and I doubt the modern scripts he wrote would be considered heart-breaking works of staggering genius. And yet the stories he crafted have more staying power in our modern culture than anything outside of the Bible. How often have these plays been adapted under different names? How deeply do these stories influence newer books and movies and television shows with or without the writers consciously realizing it?
While not his most popular play, Othello is another demonstration of this staying power. This play and its characters have influenced who knows how many stories since it was first written and performed, especially in regards to race and jealousy. Iago remains one of the most chilling villains I’ve come across in fiction, and jealousy rooted in false information and imagined slights is a very dominant theme in many modern works. A few years ago I watched Shakespeare Live! From the RSC, and there was a jazz dance of the climax of Othello’s jealousy; this dance has stuck with me for years. I could still see and hear it in my mind, even as I read. I’ve combed YouTube in search of the clip, but to no avail. I might have to give in and buy a copy of the entire show just so I can see that dance again.
I’m going to be on the lookout for other dramatized, full cast audio versions of Shakespeare’s work, especially his tragedies as they’ve always been more difficult for me to enjoy. Because, you know, they’re tragic. But I strongly believe that, even though Shakespeare would laugh at how his work as been embraced as entertainment for the upper echelon of society, the fact that it has maintained an important roll in our culture for four centuries means that it’s worth a slice of your time.