Monday, December 12, 2005

Desdemona's Napkin

Desdemona's Napkin

Desdemona's Napkin (1999)

Desdemona's napkin (handkerchief), which Iago leaves in Cassius' quarters to give husband Othello the "ocular proof" of her infidelity, could be considered a fifth major character in Shakespeare's Othello. If not ready for a prime time curtain call, it may well be one of the earliest examples of what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin -- which, according to the now disgraced Wikipedia, is

a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, particularly one whose importance is accepted completely by the story's characters, yet from the audience's perspective it might be minimally explained or may test their suspension of disbelief if it is scrutinized.

There are many examples in literature and film. Poe's "The Purloined Letters" is an excellent case. The protagonist must recover the letter before its sensitive contents are revealed, but the readers never learn what the letter said. Films and television are ripe with MacGuffins, ranging from the statuette in the Maltese Falcon to the neighbor's obscured face on Home Improvement. My favorite is the mysterious glowing car trunk in Repo Man. Slavoj Zizek, a philosophy professor and Hitchcock fan, compared the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to a MacGuffin.

But Othello has other plot device problems. Staging this

Rough sex?  Too many twinkies?

Othello and Desdemona (1829) by Alexandre-Marie Colin

in pre-civil rights Mississippi could have resulted in a lynching with convincing verisimilitude. Even the French, so hip to luscious Bardot and the comedic genius of Jerry Lewis, held their noses for quite some time to the vulgarities of Othello. From a review in the Sunday Times on Shakespeare Goes to Paris by John Pemble:

The French were so appalled by the vulgarity of Shakespeare’s plays that it took them 300 years to come near to an accurate translation. The item of Desdemona’s on which the plot of Othello hinges could not be mentioned on stage because mouchoir was too coarse a word to be uttered -- or heard -- in the Comédie Française. It was not until 1829 that Alfred de Vigny first risked the M-word, but that still left the question of the strawberries with which it was decorated, and fraise was considered an even lower word. The handkerchief was thus referred to as being decorated with “flowers” until well into the 20th century.

Hmmm. Handkerchiefs and strawberries dare not be mentioned -- but Iago's lying and treachery get a theatrical pass. I smell a farce somewhere.

Or, better yet, from, a remake:

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel examines the classic Shakespeare play Othello from a different point of view in her comic play Desdemona, a Play about a Handkerchief, the fall production at Renegade Comedy Theatre.

I'll give ya some ocular proof, big boy...

The cast from Desdemona, a Play about a Handkerchief

As the wrongly accused and suffering wife of Shakespeare's tragic Moor, Othello, Desdemona has long been viewed as the “victim of circumstance." But as Paula Vogel demonstrates in this comic deconstruction of Shakespeare's play -- aligning tongue-in-cheek humor while raising serious questions as to the role of women through the ages -- Desdemona was far from the quivering, naive waif we've all come to know. Having slept with Othello¹s entire encampment, Desdemona revels in bawdy tales of conquest. Her foils and rapt listeners are the other integral and re-imagined women of this Shakespearean tragedy: Emilia, Desdemona's servant and wife of Iago, and Bianca, now a majestic “working girl” of Cyprus.

I dig this Last Exit to Brooklyn twist. It sounds like Desdemona better buy her napkins in bulk. Who's your daddy now? as Mrs. Smith/Jolie likes to ask.

And Iago, once the greatest scheming villain of literature, is broken like the Huns in the Capitol One commercials. His days of mental pillaging are over. With yellow smileys littering the background, he's now a greeter at Wal-Mart.


Neil Shakespeare said...

Interesting post. I didn't know that stuff about the French fear of 'handkerchief'. I suppose 'panties' would have been better. I'll tell Bill to make the revisions for the French market.

cruelanimal said...

You're right. Panties were no problem. In fact, the first 300 French groundlings who bought tickets received a complimentary edible pair to munch on during the performance.

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