Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello and Tim Blake Nelson’s film O both explore universal themes of jealousy, racism and discrepancies between appearance versus reality through the utilisation of various cinematic and dramatic techniques. Both composers emphasise values of integrity, honesty and truth, proposing the audience’s acceptance and deliberation on the universality of these values. The universal concerns of racism are voiced in the 16th Century Elizabethan context of Othello, which valued the importance of national pride and saw the intrusions of African Americans as a challenge to their power. In the opening scene, Othello is described as a “moor” and “thick lips”, relating to the xenophobic nature of late 16th Century England.
Othello was constructed in a context where there were great racial tensions, accompanied by a strong dislike for the presence of “black people”, however, this stereotype is challenged through Shakespeare’s originally positive characterization of Othello. Bestial imagery, including “Barbary horse” and a “beast with two backs”, emphasizes blacks as an inferior race subject to primitive sexual urges. Brabantio’s emotive language “corrupted”, “stolen”, and “abused” reinforces racial intolerance and is supported by his belief that she could not “fall in love with what she feared” and that the attraction is “Against all rules of nature”. This not only clearly accentuates Othello’s depiction as an outsider and isolation from Venetian society but foreshadows Othello’s later downfall.
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Compared to Shakespeare’s poetic and dramatic techniques, Nelson introduces racism through cinematic depictions of white pigeons, representative of the white society, juxtaposed with the motif of the black hawk, representing Odin. Nelson also presents racism through the Dean, a figurehead of the prejudiced white society, who contradicts the allegedly “culturally tolerant” values by remarking, “I heard you’ve had run-ins with the police” to disclose his stereotyped perceptions of the African American race, implying they are criminals and dangerous people. This links effectively to Brabantio’s dehumanisation of the African American race in Shakespeare’s play. In this way, the modern American black stereotype is strongly reaffirmed. The use of colloquialism also aids in establishing this. Odin is distraught when he finds out that “they call you the nigger man”. This touches his emotion, and his rage builds to an even greater level, emphasising the powerful nature of racism. By classifying black individuals as minorities in ‘Othello’ and ‘O’, the powerful theme of racism is conveyed to the audience.
The issue of jealousy is important in Othello and O and encourages the responder to value honesty. Shakespeare’s utmost concern for jealousy is evident in the text and is expressed through characterisation and imagery. In Othello, jealousy is seen as ‘the green-eyed monster’ and is a powerful, corruptive human emotion that inevitably leads to the death of Othello in this text. This recurring motif of ‘monster’ in the play explicitly stresses the destructive nature as it “consumes” the characters’ lives. The composer shows the universality of this theme by ensnaring many of the characters with jealousy. The characterisation of the noble ‘more than black’ Othello contrasts with the corrupted and degraded Moor, who is enraged with jealousy and vengeance at the climax. This signified value of fidelity in the Elizabethan society is dishonoured with Othello’s perception of Desdemona as a “treacherous whore” after the brutal manipulation by ‘honest’ Iago. Othello remains interweaved until the climax, where death results for both himself and Desdemona due to his failure to question Iago’s honesty.
Similarly, Nelson explores the theme of jealousy utilising various film techniques. The director incorporates contextual values of respect, teenage suicide and relationships of modern society to implement them into the theme of jealousy. Jealousy is depicted as a negative, overpowering force, similar to the ‘monster’ metaphor in Othello. In the basketball court scene at the initiation of the film, Hugo’s reasons for jealousy are established clearly through his father’s dialogue describing him as a “decoy” and to Odin “, I love him like my own son”. Superimposition is used to portray Odin’s corrupted state of emotions in the intimate bedroom scene, which tragically turns into a violation of trust by replacing Odin’s body with Mike’s, accentuating the jealousy in a contemporary appropriation. Both visual techniques are effective in symbolising the great corruption that spawns from jealousy.
Appearance versus reality is a major issue in Othello and O. In Othello, the audience is introduced to the idea that characters are not what they seem. Shakespeare’s representation of the theme is achieved through the characterisation of the text’s villain Iago. Devices such as soliloquy and dramatic irony are also implemented. Iago is also a cunning, manipulative character, and throughout the play, his facade of honesty acts as a cloak that blinds Othello from his true character. The responder quickly discovers Iago’s deceptive nature when he says, “I am not what I am”. This deception is the basis of the play’s key dramatic irony. Iago’s constant statements that he “hates the moor” are juxtaposed with Othello’s repetition of “Honest Iago”, showing that their feelings toward each other are in no way mutual and that Othello has falsely judged their friendship. When Iago is deceiving Othello, it is suspenseful for the responder, particularly towards the conclusion of the play, where this deception consequently leads to his demise.
In contrast with Shakespeare’s poetic and dramatic devices, Nelson uses 21st Century techniques in the medium of the film to explore the issue of appearance versus reality. Hugo is depicted as equally as sinister as Iago. He is characterised through colloquial language such as “I don’t trust someone who has no enemies” and “Who cares about reputation?” life is when you make your own rules. Therefore, Hugo is established as vengeful, cunning and manipulative. At the beginning of the film, Hugo reveals his innermost thoughts to the responder with the voiceover. This provides the audience with what Hugo’s motives are and thus, allow them to understand and account for his manipulation throughout the film. This is similar to a soliloquy, although it allows for a visual image to progress simultaneously. Lighting is an important technique used to represent Hugo’s hidden nature visually.
This is used to visually represent the false illusion that Hugo presents to his surrounding characters. In most scenes where there are close up shots of Hugo, half of his face is shadowed with darkness. This may be interpreted as visually representing his two-faced nature. This also emphasises Hugo’s deceitful nature. Hugo adopts a facade, manipulating others with his reputation of honesty and, in this, reflecting a challenge to the 21st Century value of honesty. Overall, the two composers from different contexts use various techniques to explore racism, jealousy and appearance versus reality. For example, Shakespeare has used dramatic and poetic techniques to illustrate these concerns, which were relevant to Elizabethan society. In contrast, Tim Blake Nelson has adopted various film techniques to portray the same universally relevant issues.