Shakespeare on Screen: Threshold Aesthetics in Oliver Parker's Othello
Patricia Dorval
Université Paul Valéry

Dorval, Patricia. "Shakespeare on Screen: Threshold Aesthetics in Oliver Parker's Othello." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000):1.1-15 <URL:

Technical Note

  1. Othello is a huge trompe-l'oeil and its aesthetics baroque with its opaque transparencies, its curves and counter-curves, its initiated visions, its sombre recesses, its intricate and baffling entanglements of by-paths and blind alleys, which altogether form a vast labyrinth in which the Moor, as much as the other characters, all too readily lose themselves. At the heart of the dramatic structures lies the theme of vision, of perceptual aberrations or curious perspectives, by which Iago turns the play into "a pageant / To keep [the characters] in false gaze" (I.3.18-9). Under Iago's impulse, the stage becomes a catoptric set-up, engendering all sorts of fallacies or chimerical visions, alternately multiplying, substituting, inverting, enlarging, reducing, dilating, contracting shapes, which eventually connects to the themes of teratology and the grotesque. Pertaining to baroque poetics and a major feature of (mis)perception is Iago's strategy of liminality, by which he conducts his victim(s) to the door of perception, whether visual or verbal.

  2. The dramatic text propounds a most stimulating association in the opening act of the play between Iago and the Roman two-faced god, Janus bifrons, by whom the villain swears: "By Janus I think no"(I.2.33). [1] This allegiance to the double-faced god points primarily to the doubleness of Iago, but there is another aspect to Iago's allegiance to Janus, which is at the heart of the tragic poetics of the Shakespearean text: Iago is indeed, like Janus, the guardian of doorways and thresholds, leading Othello -- as much as other characters -- to the threshold of the visible and keeping him there; the god of beginnings, initiating the perception only to repress it; placing Othello in the ambiguous margins of the visible and of the audible. Othello is going to try and walk through the door of Desdemona's bedchamber to discover his wife's shameful adultery, a chamber of which Iago's wife, Emilia (and indirectly Iago himself) seems to have the guard, as shown in Othello's words to Emilia:

              Some of your function, mistress,
              Leave procreants alone, and shut the door,
              Cough, or cry hem, if anybody come;
              Your mystery, your mystery: nay, dispatch (IV.2.27-9)

    and a few lines later:
                                                      you, mistress,
              That have the office opposite to Saint Peter,
              And keeps the gates in hell, ay, you, you, you!
              We ha' done our course; there's money for your pains,
              I pray you turn the key, and keep good counsel (92-6).

    Having analysed elsewhere this concern with the structural and poetical prominence of doorways in the dramatic text, [2] I was fascinated to find the threshold motif so lavishly displayed in Oliver Parker's film adaptation, which is the focus of the present paper. [3]

  3. Oliver Parker's 1995 film adaptation of the play teems with images of gates and doorways. Russell Jackson, who worked as literary advisor to the film director, indicated to me that Oliver Parker had indeed been particularly concerned with "entrances, doorstep hesitations and lurking by windows," in the thriller or "film noir" tradition. Parker's perceptiveness about the play's aesthetics and poetics is perfectly congruent with the Janus prosopopoeia, which is some kind of "mythological rhizome," or subterranean plant stem, making its way horizontally under the surface of the text, and now and again shooting upward and showing through, as in Iago's explicit allegiance to the Roman god. Such use of doorways is persistent in Parker's film. When the Moor calls for Emilia in the aforesaid scene, in which his actual words equate Emilia's office with that of a janitor (same etymology as Janus), furnished with a key and presiding over ingress and egress, she actually enters the bedroom at once, as if she had been waiting behind the door, just outside the bedchamber, and as if her function were indeed that of doorkeeper. In the same film, it is striking to notice that Iago is repeatedly stationed on a threshold, between inside and outside, often ushering the characters in and out.
    o In the opening sequence of the film, [4] Iago and Roderigo are lurking (in the foreground) beside a door, and seem to be spying upon the flustered Desdemona who is hastening stealthily to some secret place to be wedded to Othello in the middle of the night. [Quick Time, 3.9MB: RealMedia, 372K]
    o Act I, scene 1, Roderigo is watching the wedding ceremony from outside a door (hence the opposition inside / outside) through a fan-light, saying "I take it much unkindly that thou Iago [...] shouldst know of this" (I.1.1-3) while Iago is sitting on the floor by his side. At the beginning of the second act, when Othello arrives on horseback, some time after the other characters, having been kept behind by the raging storm, Iago is loitering by the entry to the citadel, and as a true and dutiful servant ushers Othello in, walking by him alongside his horse, and holding the animal after the Moor has dismounted to embrace his new spouse. [Quick Time, 10.0MB: RealMedia, 880K]
    o Act III, scene 3, when Othello collapses on his bed partly out of shot, the camera reveals Iago still skulking in the doorway. [Quick Time, 14.2MB: RealMedia, 1.3MB]
    o Some moments later, Othello wakes up with a start in the middle of the night, having dreamt of Desdemona and Cassio's embraces, and leaves the palace for the beach. Unexpectedly Iago appears surreptitiously behind him, as if he had been lurking there, and remains for a while in the doorway of the palace with his eyes on Othello before joining him on the beach. [Quick Time, 5.0MB: RealMedia, 499K] This is immediately followed by Othello's mention of the "hinge":

               Make me to see't, or at the least so prove it,
               That the probation bear no hinge, nor loop,
               To hang a doubt on (III.3.370-2)

    Iago's rejoinder comes some forty lines later:

               If imputation and strong circumstances,
               Which lead directly to the door of truth,
               Will give you satisfaction, you may ha't (412-4).

    One might further notice that the setting involves two gateways, and Othello rushes through the first (open) door only to find a few yards further another gate, set in the outer wall of the citadel, shut. Othello fuzzes out of focus in the second doorway while Iago is foregrounded on the first threshold. This perspicuous use of gates is suggestive of Othello's frantic urge to throw that forbidden and inaccessible "door of truth" open. He ends up his precipitous walk in the open, on the open beach and in the open air, away from the circumscribed and claustrophobic space of Iago's "close denotements." He becomes obsessed with opening doors, and yet whenever he does open one he at once and infallibly encounters another, forming as many blind alleys in the fine tangled web work of Iago's wily schemes. [5]
    o Act III, scene 4, after demanding in vain from Desdemona the handkerchief which she is unable to produce, Othello leaves the bedroom in a passion, flinging the doors open. Iago is revealed standing motionless just outside the door, on the side by the doorjamb, a clean towel on his folded arm. Then Emilia, looking steadfastly upon Iago, still on the threshold, comments with bitter disillusionment:

               'Tis not a year or two shows us a man:
               They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;
               They eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
               They belch us (III.4.100-3)
    After a brief moment, Iago, with his eyes still on Emilia, closes the doors upon himself, with the sense that he keeps behind the doors at the entry of the bedchamber, as doorkeeper or janitor. Iago had been seen hanging in a doorway, with a towel folded on his arm, behind Othello, like an obsequious valet, at the opening of the armory scene (III.3). [Quick Time, 7.2MB: RealMedia, 698K]
    oAt the end of the play (V.2), when Iago tries to escape from the soldiers, he hides behind a door, and opens it a crack to gaze upon his pursuers. Then as he tries to sneak out through another door, he falls upon Montano and some other soldiers who lay hands upon him. At this point the camera adopts Roderigo's point of view, distorting the image. This is suggestive of the (mis)perception motif at work in the tragedy: as he is lying supinely in agony on a table to be looked after, Roderigo sees Iago upside down and, as he turns round, the inverted image of Iago revolves to finally end upright. Gaze and reality coincide at last for Roderigo who points accusingly at Iago before passing away. [Quick Time, 5.5MB: RealMedia, 535K]

  4. From standing spatially on the thresholds of houses, at the doors, Janus is temporally considered as the patron of beginnings and endings. To Iago likewise are entrusted the opening / beginning and the closing / ending of most of the scenes. Parker makes the most of this. Iago leaves any room or place he is in last, and lingers behind the other characters. In the second scene, after the wedding ceremony, when Othello has met with Iago and Cassio, and the latter has told him that he has been called for by the Duke, Othello and his lieutenant depart for the council chamber, leaving Iago behind for a fleeting moment, before he too walks away to join them. The same device is used more forcibly when the Duke and his counsellors withdraw, and Othello entrusts Iago with Desdemona in view of the journey to Cyprus (I.3). When all have retired, Iago lingers behind with his eyes set steadfastly off shot upon them brooding malignantly, when a whining voice is heard from behind and the dispirited Roderigo comes forth from behind the Duke's throne. The very end of the scene (I.3) closes upon Iago, a closing which is doubled in the film as Iago's monologue is split between two sequences, merging ending and beginning. II.3 has Iago left alone after Cassio's departure, after he has wheedled him into drinking a stoup of wine. Ironically Iago has been at pains to straighten and smoothe out the sash indicating Cassio's rank (seemingly coveting it) while coaxing him into drinking, as he will obsequiously button up Othello's collar after having poured his poison into his ear (III.3). After Cassio's departure, Iago remains behind wording for the audience his intention to make Cassio drunk: "If I can fasten but one cup upon him" (II.3.44). His monologue (44-57) closes the first half-scene and opens the second, when Iago is met by "Montano, Cassio, and others" (57). Later in the scene, lines 327-53 work to the same effect, as Iago dismisses Cassio: "Good night, lieutenant, I must to the watch" (324-5) -- with here as elsewhere a new telling reversal in that Iago bids Cassio good night, prompting him to leave, while he himself stays behind -- before he is met by Roderigo. The scene which had been coming to a closure starts again. This false closing is rendered in the film as Iago places his sooty hand (see below) over the lens of the camera with a black-out effect. The scene eventually closes upon Iago with yet another soliloquy (372-8). Conversely, Iago is present all by himself, delivering his monologue (III.3.326-38), at the beginning of the beach scene, where he is to push his slanderous innuendoes further.

  5. On several occasions, the camera moves sidewise, sidles to reveal Iago standing by a character, suggesting that there is a beginning before the beginning, and opening the gates of the dramatic and cinematographic limbo, over which the villain seems to have full control. Iago gives the impression of being hinged once again between in-shot and off-shot, inside and outside. The first instance is found right at the outset while Roderigo is peering through the semicircular window above the door. As he vociferates "I take it much unkindly that thou Iago [...] shouldst know of this," the camera moves down and sideways, discovering Iago squatting on the floor, with his back against the wall, close by the door. The second scene functions in very much the same way, opening with a close-up of Cassio's melancholy profile while he is musing over the secret wedding to which he has been privy. While he is thus pondering, the camera pans further to the right, and reveals in the background Iago who is observing him, first slightly out of focus until Cassio turns his face to him, and notices his presence. After the night brawl, the camera is focused on Cassio in close-up wailing over the irredeemable loss of his reputation, before it moves back slowly, taking in the figure of Iago in the background. As Cassio collapses out of shot to the floor (as will Othello during his first fit of epilepsy), Iago is left alone filling the screen, producing some sort of back / front reversal. [6] On many other occasions, Iago, on being called for, comes forth, stepping into shot, so that there is a fundamental dramatisation of the cinematographic threshold, opening some dark abyss or limbo without. [7] This is what happens for instance when Othello entrusts Iago with Desdemona at the end of Act I, scene 3: "My Desdemona must I leave to thee" (295), the words "honest Iago" (294) prompting the villain -- who had hitherto remained unseen save to fetch Desdemona on the Duke's request -- into shot.

  6. Alternately Iago who is standing in the background comes progressively into focus, while the character in the foreground fades out, which produces a new backward / forward inversion. This is dramatized on several occasions. In Act II, scene 3, while Iago is reporting to Othello how the fight broke out, the camera repeatedly changes focal point, alternately shooting Cassio in focus, while Iago and Othello in the background blur out, and vice versa. Later in the same scene, Iago comes into focus in the far background between Cassio and Othello to signify to Cassio that he has done his utmost to temper Othello's wrath. [8] The device is again pregnant with meaning when, in the vaulted armory, Iago who is at first sitting in the background starts making insinuations to Othello, whose face is screened by swords displayed on racks (see below). Iago is at first out of focus, seen as much as unseen, while his opening (un)spoken suspicions of Desdemona's (un)faithfulness are shut out by Othello, and yet incipiently seep through his closed ears to infect his mind. As Iago comes back into focus (before he walks over to Othello who has moved away from him at the first disclosure), one can surmise that Iago's poisoned words have already made their way into Othello's fancy. The same device will be at work at the end of the play, while Othello is reading the letter brought from Venice by Lodovico, to convey the double focus of the scene. The focus keeps shifting from Othello who is perusing the letter and Desdemona in the background who is talking with Lodovico about Cassio.

  7. Janus stands sentinel at heaven's gate, where he regulates the comings and goings of the gods, and so does Iago. He clearly presides over the entrances and exits of the other characters. To give but a few examples, Iago dismisses Cassio during Othello's fit of epilepsy (IV.1.56): "Do you withdraw yourself a little while." He hereby presides over Cassio's exit while prompting him to come back later (entry): "when he is gone, / I would on great occasion speak with you" (57-8), which is taken up a few lines later in Iago's words to Othello: "Cassio came hither; I shifted him away [exit] [...] Bid him anon return [entry]" (78 & 80). In the film Iago actually shows Cassio out, and closes the door upon him. In the same scene, Iago disposes of Othello, whom he urges to withdraw and hide close by to overhear his conversation with Cassio: "encave yourself" (81), then "will you withdraw?" (92). In Parker's film, Iago opens the iron grid of a prison cell inside which he pushes Othello, before closing the grid upon him. In the last two examples, Iago's business with disposing of the other characters (as would a stage or film director) is closely associated with the door motif. Likewise, towards the end of that same scene, Iago urges Cassio to follow Bianca: "After her, after her" (158), and Cassio agrees: "Faith, I must, she'll rail i'the street else" (159). The same is true of the gullible Roderigo to whom Iago gives his exit cue:
    Iago. Adieu.
    Rod. Where shall we meet i' the morning?
    . At my lodging.
    Rod. I'll be with thee betimes.
    . Go to, farewell: ...do you hear, Roderigo?
    . What say you?
    . No more of drowning, do you hear?
    . I am chang'd.
    . Go to, farewell! Put money enough in your purse. (I.3.372-80).

    Iago is prompting Roderigo to depart whilst inducing him to retrace his steps, making the most of the threshold locus and interweaving exit and entry. Then Roderigo, who has left the room, suddenly and unexpectedly rushes back in (which is tantamount to a sham exit) to strike hands with Iago, startling the latter who was to embark on his monologue (381-402). Again later: "Iago. I warrant thee, meet me by and by at the citadel: / I must fetch his necessaries ashore...Farewell. / Rod. Adieu [Exit]" (II.1.278-80). And again two scenes later: "Retire thee (1), go where thou art billeted (2), / Away, I say, thou shalt know more hereafter (3): / Nay, get thee gone (4)" (II.3.370-2). Parker renders this quadruple injunction by having the engrossed Roderigo hanging limply in Iago's manly clasp, or rather clinging to him, with a ludicrous effect as the lines dilate preposterously, and Roderigo still does not budge. Here again, Roderigo leaves and returns to slap Iago on the shoulder (sham exit). Iago disposes likewise of Desdemona:

               Hark, how these instruments summon you to supper,
               And the great messengers of Venice stay:
               Go in, and weep not, all things shall be well (IV.2.171-3). [9]

    Iago shows Desdemona and Emilia out, and remains a few seconds by the door with his eyes upon them, until the hitherto resilient Roderigo bursts open the door of some inner recess where he has been hiding, and springs upon him to demand his due. Iago, who is first seriously threatened by Roderigo who sticks his dagger to his throat, manages to reverse the situation by grasping Roderigo's weapon and turning it against himself, saying, "if thou the next night following enjoyest not Desdemona, take me from this world with treachery, and devise engines for my life" (216-8). He once more turns the tables, threatening where he was threatened, and turning Roderigo's vindictiveness into blindfolded confidence again.

  8. Of much interest is Iago's sham exit of Act III, scene 3, where again the contraries, the entry and the exit, merge together. Thus Iago withdraws at line 245 -- "Oth. Farewell, if more / Thou dost perceive, let me know more, set on / Thy wife to observe; leave me, Iago. / Iago. [Going] My lord, I take my leave" (242-5) -- only to come back immediately, retracing his steps: "[ Returning] My lord, I would I might entreat your honour / To scan this thing no further" (248-9), and then leave Othello again, this time for good: "I once more take my leave. [Exit]" (261). In Parker's film (see above), one realises afterwards -- so that the spectator's interpretative work is itself turned both ways, forward and backward -- that Iago has not left the room, as one had thought, but has remained in the doorway, inside as much as outside, throughout Othello's monologue, only to leave actually on seeing Desdemona and Emilia coming (283). This double sham exit is congruent with the allegory of the double-faced god, but furthermore confuses to the extreme ingress and egress, and underscores the threshold locus. Most telling is the fact that Iago is the one to obey the Duke of Venice's bidding that Desdemona be summoned to settle the argument between Brabantio and the Moor. He is actually discreetly motioned out by Othello. And like an obsequious servant of stealthy step, Iago withdraws from the council chamber to come back a little while later, as the doors are noisily thrown open -- drawing the other characters' attention -- to usher Desdemona into the presence of the Duke. Likewise Iago had been entrusted with Desdemona to convey her to Cyprus:

                                             honest Iago,
               My Desdemona must I leave to thee;
               I prithee, let thy wife attend on her,
               And bring her after in the best advantage (I.3.294-7).

    Roughly at the opening of Act III, scene 3, Iago is turning into a corridor and passing under an archway, ahead of Othello, whom he is conducting, like a dutiful servant, to the place whence he might descry Desdemona in company with Cassio discussing the latter's reinstatement.

  9. Iago is furthermore going to lead Othello to the threshold of the visible, to "the door of truth," whence Othello is to have a vicarious perception, which is particularly well exploited by Parker.
    o At the beginning of the film, Roderigo is watching the wedding ceremony from outside through a fan-light made of a thick and distorting glass (see above). The misshapen image of the love vowed by Othello and Desdemona reflects Iago's earlier textual misrepresentation of a bestial and unnatural union (I.1.88-9; 115-7). Later in the film, the contrast between the blissful on-going wedding banquet (II.1), and Iago's words -- "Lechery, by this hand: an index and prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts" (254-5) -- works to the same effet. As Iago utters these foul words, the camera focuses on the gross and filthy clasps of an old man and a woman on a haycart underneath which Iago and Roderigo are crouching. The action and words function like an anamorphic glass warping the loving embraces of Othello and Desdemona. [Quick Time, 10.0MB: RealMedia, 922K ]
    o Act III, scene 3, Othello's face and vision are screened by a set of racks displaying swords, while Iago is divulging his suspicions about Cassio and Desdemona. As Othello's jealousy is being aroused, he starts fiddling with one of the swords, feeling its edge with the thick of his thumb. [Quick Time, 11.7MB: RealMedia, 1.1MB] [10]
    o Later in that same central scene, Othello dreams that he is gazing through the transparent veils of the bed curtains upon Desdemona and Cassio making love, before he draws the curtains apart with the tip of his sword. This business epitomizes Othello's sickly desire to throw open Iago's "door of truth," and see with his own eyes. [Quick Time, 5.2MB: RealMedia, 497K] [11]
    o Act III, scene 4, Othello is actually peering through the bed curtains upon Desdemona who is desperately rummaging to find the handkerchief she has lost. As above Othello eventually parts the draperies, asking Desdemona to produce the handkerchief. The "napkin" is another gauze-like web blindfolding Othello, and through which he descries his wife's perdition. [Quick Time, 5.0MB: RealMedia, 480K] [12]
    o The lattice motif is at work again throughout the eavesdropping scene (IV.1), where Othello overhears the conversation between Cassio and Iago while peeping through the iron bars of the cell Iago has shut him in. The bars which constrict Othello's vision function like Desdemona's name surreptitiously slipped between the name Bianca, the actual topic of the conversation, and the pronoun "she" ever used thereafter, screening Othello's acoustic perception of the exchange. In the film Iago is found mouthing Bianca's name in Cassio's ear, so that the name is both spoken (for Cassio) and left unspoken (for Othello). Iago had done likewise with the name of Cassio hardly breathed out in his very first "close denotements" to the Moor: "observe her well with Cassio" (III.3.201). The enclosure motif, which is the locus of Iago's subtle manoeuvring, whether the vaulted dungeon or the arched armory where the racks were displayed earlier on, is emblematic of Othello's confinement in Iago's sayings and showings. [Quick Time, 28.9MB: RealMedia, 2.7MB] [13]

  10. Still related to the screen effect and being on both sides of a boundary, or threshold, is the fact that Iago is now and again simultaneously in and out of an action (as much as a place or assertion), not only prompting for instance Roderigo into doing this or that, but actually wounding Montano through Roderigo at the end of the brawl scene (II.3), just as he will do at the close of the play, hurting Cassio through Roderigo, and Roderigo through Cassio. In Act I, scene 2, he is hiding behind a pole and pushing Roderigo forward in the open full in the view of Brabantio, shouting obscene words through him to the old man. Roderigo is so offended at the rawness of the words that he keeps turning alternately back and forth, towards Brabantio and towards Iago, wedged between the two characters. Iago repeatedly places Roderigo in his own position, skulking by doorways, or lingering behind characters. Likewise Iago will lurk (V.1) behind a pillar where he is watching Roderigo who is himself watching for Cassio "before" him, "behind" another pillar. In that the gullible Roderigo is hinged between back and front, with besides an embedding effect not unrelated to metadramatic devices.

  11. The indirection and distortion of the gaze is a related motif dramatised on two occasions by Parker:
    o As soon as the characters arrive in Cyprus, Iago observes behind him -- i.e. backward -- without being seen, the courteous exchange between Desdemona and Cassio reflected on the blade of his knife, uttering these slightly interpolated words: "Very good, ay, well said, whisper: in as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio" (II.1.167-9). The reflection is blurred and warped on the unpolished blade. [Quick Time, 4.2MB: RealMedia, 397K]
    o This device was used before by Yutkevitch (1955) who had the courteous exchange mirrored on the hilt of Iago's sword while these very lines were delivered. [Quick Time, 6.7MB: RealMedia, 645K] Like the double-faced god, Iago sees everything, before him and behind him, forward and backward. Iago perceives (and this is no surprise) what nobody would have suspected: "I confess it is in my nature's plague / To spy [from the Latin spectare, to gaze] into abuses" (III.3.150-2). References to the gaze, to seeing, are of paramount importance in the text. Besides a new reversal is contrived by having Iago peering upon the couple in his back reflected on the knife-blade proffered before him. If Iago / Janus sees backward, he also most of the time speaks backward through the use of preterition or chiasmus, in which the language is turned at one and the same time both ways, towards the right and towards the left. And if Iago (/Janus) is in the position of seeing backward and of saying backward, he is also found "doing (things) backward" in Parker's film, where Iago practises sodomy with his wife, Emilia, to pay her back for having given him the handkerchief stolen from Desdemona. [14]
    o Parker employs the reflection motif a second time when Othello is looking at himself in a slightly distorting mirror. [Quick Time, 5.2MB : RealMedia, 496K] The episode offers a fascinating illustration of chiasmus with a close-up on Iago's mouth [A] -- the camera moves toward Othello's ear [B] -- Othello closes his eyes [C] -- sees in imagination Desdemona in Cassio's arms [D] -- Othello opens his eyes [C'] -- close-up on Othello's ear [B'] -- Iago's mouth [A']. Hence a perfect chiasmus [A - B - C - D- C' - B' - A'] with, at the centre, the love relationship between Desdemona and Cassio [D], the monster at the centre of the labyrinth made of curves and counter-curves. There follows a lateral reversal, a new reversibility which is fundamental to the poetics of the play. The scene is split up between two cinematographic sequences with an anadiplosis effect, the previous scene ending the way the following one begins: the end and the beginning, the contraries, are once again merged. When Othello reopens his eyes (after having imagined Cassio and Desdemona in each other's arms), what he sees is his reflection on a warped mirror, suggesting that from then on no direct and clear vision is possible for him. His perception is ever after to be distorted to the point of being reversed by the mirror effect. Furthermore Iago's voice progressively fades out into Othello's imagined vision of the lovers, as Othello needs no further prompting, hence a simply initiated discourse in relation to the allegory of the god of beginnings. The eye -- which is unfortunately that of the spurious imagination -- is substituted for the ear. One is left with the image of Iago's dumbed mouth, speaking through parted and moving lips, which are yet soundless. Iago's speechless mouth looks forward to his most dramatic refusal to speak a word more at the end of the tragedy when urged to explain the reason for his bewildering hatred: "Demand me nothing, what you know, you know, / From this time forth I never will speak word" (V.2.304-5).

  12. The image of a voiceless mouth suggestive of Iago's half-utterances, his "close denotements," his ever hushed speeches, is used again by Parker to exceedingly good effect right after the fight between Cassio and Montano, when Othello demands that the seemingly reluctant Iago account for the nightly disturbance (II.3). Cassio is standing in profile in the foreground on the left side of the screen, while in the background Iago is relating to Othello how "this foul rout began" (201). The camera repeatedly changes focal points. As the focus falls upon Cassio, Iago's words to Othello subside, and fade in again as the camera focuses on the two men in the background. The business of course highlights Cassio's excruciating agony while Iago's report is ruining his reputation. But of more importance is the fact that Iago's narrative is merely initiated with his opening words: "Montano and myself being in speech, / There comes a fellow, crying out for help, / And Cassio following him with determin'd sword, / To execute upon him" (215-9). Then Iago's speech dies out into a faint, barely perceptible whisper whose content cannot be made out, to fade in again with the concluding words: "More of this matter can I not report" (231). This initiated speech is not only again in keeping with the prosopopoeia of the god of beginnings but actually with Iago / Janus' control over both beginnings and endings. Furthermore this interlacing of speech and speechlessness pertains to the oxymoronic conception of the double-faced Janus, looking at one and the same time this way and that, as found again in Iago's use of preterition where he speaks out under cover of keeping things unspoken.

  13. There is another manipulation of the gaze in the metadramatic dimension of the tragedy, which seems from beginning to end "a pageant" set up by Iago "[t]o keep [the characters] in false gaze."
    o In Parker's adaptation, the devilish Iago grasps a red hot brand and daubs his hands with soot, before he actually places his blackened hand on the lens of the camera, with the effect of a black-out, saying "So will I turn her virtue into pitch, / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh 'em all" (II.3.351-3). [Quick Time, 3.8MB: RealMedia, 367K]
    o As before, Parker most likely drew for this sequence upon the Russian film adaptation by Yutkevitch, where Iago dips his hand into a well, where his face is reflected, and blurs the surface into a black-out. [Quick Time, 7.4MB: RealMedia, 708K] Iago appears as the absolute master of the gaze, of seeing, hiding and showing things at will. The soot he spreads over the "eye" of the camera also suggests the fact that the characters are overly blind. It also testifies to the fact that as the play progresses, night seems to spread over Cyprus (with literally a growing importance of night scenes) overshadowing all the characters, including the fair Desdemona, who becomes, in Othello's very words, "begrim'd, and black:" "her name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd, and black / As mine own face" (III.3.392-4). This business furthermore shows Iago as film (or stage) director, and most of all as god of passageways, with the impression that he steps out of the dramatic universe. This is reminiscent of the artistic device, which consists in painting a frame around the canvas, so as to provide a double frame, and thus a mise en abyme. The artifice is used to its full effect in Murillo's Self-Portrait, where the artist's hand is resting on the painted frame, so that the painted figure is protruding out of the fictional universe of the painting into reality. What is dramatised is not only the margin, but also the movement to and fro, the passage, or transition between reality and representation.

  14. Seeing Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's hands, Othello is convinced of his wife's guilt, and of Iago's honesty. He feels he has actually peeped with his own eyes through the "door of truth" upon Desdemona's pranks. The Moor ends up stepping into Iago's position as doorkeeper or janitor. He calls again and again for other characters, and dismisses them in turn, as he does repeatedly Desdemona. After he has feasted his guests, Othello ushers Lodovico in Act IV, scene 3...and yet outside, consistently stepping out of doors in the film, and after he has dismissed Desdemona (10), obligingly shows Lodovico to his bed chamber, which prompts the latter's entreaty that he need not trouble himself: "I do beseech you, sir, trouble yourself no further" (IV.3.1). But Othello insists on walking his guest to his room, as Iago is shown to have done again and again as a true dutiful usher. When Lodovico and his attendants have arrived before their lodging, and eventually withdraw through the doors at line 10, Othello stays behind, lingering before the gates, uncertain where to betake himself, crushed as he is by the ponderous and heart-rending vow he has taken to wrest the life of his beloved Desdemona. One witnesses a new and most dramatic reversal (V.2), in which Othello dispatches Emilia, dismissing her as "janitor" (Janus), to become himself the guardian of the doors, locking himself up in the bedroom to commit the irredeemable. After Emilia's reiterated cries, Othello ends up closing the bedcurtains: "let me the curtains draw" (106), before opening -- with a new merging of the opposites -- the door, of which he only has the key: "Unlocks the door" (107). Othello's identification with Iago / Janus is complete. Towards the "close" of the film, on having cast his eyes over the tragic loading of the bed -- on which are lying Othello and Desdemona, but also Emilia stabbed by her husband, and Iago badly wounded by the Moor -- [15] Cassio opens the shutters of the bedchamber casement, allowing the light in, but also emblematically closing the tragedy with an opening, which is that of light, truth and virtue restored at the hands of Cassio. The latter becomes the warrant of true values and guardian of the (true) "door of truth," which from then on will be kept open. Orson Welles, for his part, had chosen to close a hideous and ponderous circular opening with some kind of a lid in the ceiling of the bedchamber, turning the nuptial room into a funeral room, where the wedding sheets had become a deathly pall. Two opposite and yet indissociable visions, a closing and an opening, oxymoron-like, reminding one that the opposites are but the two sides of the same coin, as epitomized by Janus bifrons, who indeed had his effigy stamped on coins in ancient Rome.

  15. Parker's 1995 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello is rife with images of doorways or thresholds of all sorts invested mostly by the sneaking ensign, Iago, who becomes the living embodiment of the Roman double-faced god of doors and passageways, Janus, also god of beginnings, initiating the visual and verbal perception, seeing and saying things (doing things) backwards as much as forwards, of which Parker's -- and his predecessors' -- use of the reflection motif seems a very apt avatar.



1. William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. M.R. Ridley [1958] (London: Methuen, 1982).

2. Patricia Dorval, "Double-faced Guardian of Doorways and Thresholds in Shakespeare's Othello," forthcoming.

3. Othello. Directed by Oliver Parker. Castle Rock Entertainments, 1995. Columbia Tristar Home Video, 1997. An earlier and much shorter version of this paper was originally presented at the French Shakespeare Society Conference (Société Française Shakespeare) on "Shakespeare et le cinéma" (Paris, February, 1998), and published in the conference proceedings. This earlier version contains discussions on other film representations of Othello -- notably the Russian adaptation by Sergei Yutkevitch (1955) -- which have been left out in the present paper. The present paper was presented along with a video montage at the centennial Shakespeare on Screen conference in Màlaga, September, 1999.

4. The bullets refer to the video montage.

5. Moreover Iago appears in the doorway of the first gate at the very moment when Othello throws the second open and walks through it. This parallel might lead us to deduce that, as the play develops, Othello is to step into Iago's position as doorkeeper (just as he takes over his use of prose, imagery, etc.)

6. Besides Cassio's downfall points to Iago's coming reinstatement as the Moor's right hand.

7. Doesn't Prospero refer to offstage events pertaining to a period before the opening of the play as having taken place in "the dark backward and abysm of time" (The Tempest I.2.50)?

8. Iago's figure, in the background, that separates Cassio from Othello is aptly suggestive of the "breach" or "division" that has fallen between the two men (IV.1.221 & 226).

9. Incidentally, Iago is not seen walking into the room, but abruptly appears behind Desdemona, as if he had been hanging around.

10. The racks may conjure up Othello's words "thou hast set me on the rack" (III.3.341).

11. This (un)veiling might also be the expression of Othello's voyeuristic pleasure in seeing his wife making love with another man, while he himself inserts the tip of his sword into the slit, widening the opening between the two curtains.

12. The analogy between the draperies screening Othello's perception and the handkerchief comes out through the conflating device by which the bedcurtains scene of III.3 (as described above) is inserted between the time when Iago tosses the handkerchief up and the moment when it alights in Cassio's hand as he is leaning out of the bedroom window.

13. During his first fit of epilepsy just prior to the eavesdropping episode, Othello collapses on a bench and grasps fitfully two chains on either side of his body. He recalls the enfettered convicts elusively shown as part of the dismal setting. Cf. Folio text: "I will gyve thee in thine own courtship" (II.1.169-70).

14. Iago is emphatically shown to flip Emilia over, pulling up her skirts, unbuttoning his breeches, and all of a sudden discontinuing his business to toss the handkerchief up, which will be found to alight some time later in Cassio's hand as he is looking through his bedroom window. A hoaxing device for its caricatural and unrealistic effects.

15. Iago has crept onto the bed to lie at his master's feet, in keeping with the dog metaphor used repeatedly in the text. Besides this business also calls to mind Iago's homosexual attraction to Othello, as again conveyed earlier in the film when Iago and Othello seal their revenge vow by mixing their blood palm to palm; then Iago is seen embracing Othello with unfeigned passion -- contrary to his former clasping of Cassio -- as if his unconditional love had at last received its due.

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).