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Reviews139 Edward Pechter, Othello and Interpretive Traditions. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999. Pp. xii + 255. $32.95. Edward Pechter's book may be one ofthe best places for any nonspecialist reader of Othello to begin a serious examination of this drama. Pechter himself has not only read the play thoroughly and thoughtfully, but he also seems to be completely familiar with the history ofits critical reception and its theatrical stagings. He offers a lucid overview not only ofthe work itselfbut of the strong reactions it has consistendy provoked among essayists, actors, audiences , and students. He argues, in fact, that Othello is the Shakespearean tragedy that speaks most compellingly to our present historical moment, having displaced Lear as Lear once displaced Hamlet. He also contends that Othello has always been one ofthe most genuinely painful ofShakespeare's tragedies and therefore one ofthe most powerful works in all Western literature.Yet the play, he demonstrates, has frequentlyprovoked a kind ofcritical acrimony that often mimics the malignancy we associate with lago, and the work has also posed numerous problems for actors and directors, particularly because it is the one tragedy by Shakespeare in which the antagonist seems at least as important as the nominal hero. In short, Othello is a play so provocative in so many different ways that audiences have rarely known exactiy how to respond. Their uncertainty has therefore been an important part oftheir response. Pechter's book is full ofinteresting data, such as the fact that lago speaks a third more lines than Othello does or the fact that only Hamlet and Richard IH surpass lago in the number oflines given to a Shakespearean tragic character . Pechter notes that in no other tragedy does Shakespeare so completely divide our interests between the hero and his nemesis, and he sees this division as crucial to the uneven responses the play has elicited over the centuries. Some eras (particularly the nineteenth century) have wanted the play to be mainly about a noble man brought low, while others (such as our own time) have tended to focus more on Iago's satanic energy and have thus diminished Othello. Pechter argues for the necessity of achieving a balanced view, although he readily admits that the play makes achieving such balance difficult —especially when it is acted. He shows how often lago has dominated the play, and how Shakespeare effectively encourages us to see things from Iago's point of view, especially in the opening scene. Our response to the work becomes conflicted because our response to lago is conflicted, too. Pechter suggests that Elizabethan audiences may have been less concerned with issues of race than moderns tend to be, and he is especially interesting when he speculates that Othello's status as a former Muslim may have been more troublingto Shakespeare's contemporaries than his likely status as a black. He notes the complex attitudes Elizabethans held toward Moors: they were 140Comparative Drama infidels, but they were also possibly allies in conflicts with other Christians, such as the French or Spanish. A similar ambivalence, he suggests, would have affected Elizabethan responses to Venice as a city, since that metropolis could be seen both as corrupt and as enticing. Such ambiguities, he suggests, inevitably affect how we respond to Othello, but ambiguous responses are especially characteristic of our reaction to lago, who is at once a source of intense theatrical pleasure and ofstrong moral disgust. One ofthe most troubling and disturbing aspects of the play, Pechter contends, is the degree to which we inevitably identify with lago, in spite of our knowledge that we should find him ethically unappealing. It is partly this confused response that helps to account for the play's genuine affective power. While making each of his larger points, Pechter moves carefully through the play, offering not only his own reactions to its detailed textures but also noting how numerous critics, actors, and audiences have responded over the centuries. One comes away from this book, then, with a sense of having listened not just to Pechter but to many other voices, and this is one ofthe great values ofthis volume. Pechter has his own opinions, but he is confident...


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pp. 139-141
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