- Stitching and Unstitching:Fabrications in Othello
I first read the story of "Othello the Moor of Venice" in narrative form in Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. Then I studied the play at school, in Sydney, Australia, aged 16. I saw it simply as a love story, disrupted by jealousy and interference. A few years later, I studied it again in the Tragedy component of my undergraduate degree course in English Literature. My professor taught us that a tragic hero's weaknesses were innately and paradoxically entwined with his strengths.
I taught the play to consecutive classes of A-level English Literature students for years, from approximately 1985–2015. By then I had realized, of course, that the love story between Othello and Desdemona was complicated by issues of gender and race and relative power status. The play was now being studied in the contexts of Postcolonial and Feminist criticism and identity politics.
Internal Affairs, a terrific film that stars Richard Gere, Andy Garcia, and Nancy Travis and is set in contemporary Los Angeles, came out in 1990 and seemed to me to be profoundly inspired by Shakespeare's play. Gere played the Iago character with finesse, suavity, and a sort of sleek and smiling predatory consciencelessness. Garcia played a strong-willed and strong-minded Latino cop—the Othello character—in charge of investigating the criminal behavior of the police department. Travis played his sumptuous, highly intelligent wife, the Desdemona character.
There are key differences in this modernized version. There is no Cassio figure. The hot-tempered and principled investigative officer is set up by the Iago figure, to suspect that his wife is being unfaithful to [End Page 74] him with the very man he is investigating. Brilliant camerawork makes us, too, believe this is plausible. After all, what do we know about other people's private lives?
Garcia confronts Travis just as Othello does Desdemona in the play, in front of a group of her friends. In this case, at an elegant public restaurant. He asks her who she has had lunch with. She has been told by Gere, whom she believes is her husband's colleague, not to say that she had met him. But Garcia has already seen them meeting at a cafe. So, when she repeatedly denies it, he hits her, just as Othello does Desdemona, when he thinks she is mocking him by sleeping with Cassio and laughing at his being recalled to Venice. Travis falls to the ground, in slow motion, in front of their horrified friends.
But unlike the Elizabethan play, the film shows the response of a modern woman. When Garcia returns to the apartment to pack and move out, his wife is there, and she confronts him directly with her anger at his violent and crazy behavior. He shouts back and explains what has been going on in his mind. She tells him that if she had wanted to be with anyone else, she wouldn't be with him. It's absolutely true. And they are able to break down the manufactured distrust with communication: because she has standing in the relationship; because they are partners; because there is respect, and honesty, at the base of the connection.
In this modern telling of the story, there is no handkerchief. It's contemporary America, so the material object thrust into the face of Garcia by Gere is a piece of ladies' underwear, which he has taken from this lady's home without her knowledge, let alone her consent. The fact that he had it with him, and tells her wounded husband Garcia to wipe his face with it (he has just bashed him in the face and he is bleeding), suggests to Garcia that intimacy has indeed taken place. But it's fabricated evidence. Literally. And only a man with a mind poisoned by lies would believe it.
The handkerchief, the piece of luxury fabric in Othello, was the only item of circumstantial evidence Iago has in his possession, to support [End Page 75] his claim that Desdemona is intimate with Cassio. It is described as an item of exquisite beauty, luxury, and value. An heirloom piece—silk, hand...