David Bruce: “William Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’: A Retelling in Prose”

Late at night on a street of Venice, Italy, Iago and Roderigo were in the middle of a conversation.

Roderigo said, “Bah! Don’t even try to make me believe that! I have trusted you, and I have let you spend my money as if it were your own. I can’t believe what I am hearing!”

“You are not listening to me,” Iago said. “I never dreamed that such a thing could happen. If I have, then hate me forever.”

“You told me that you hate him.”

“Indeed, I do,” Iago replied. “Hate me if I do not hate him. Three VIPs of Venice went to him to ask him to make me his lieutenant. They removed their hats as they stood in front of him to show their respect for him. By the faith of humanity, I know my worth, and I know that I deserve to be his lieutenant. But he, being proud and wanting to make his own decision, ignored them. Instead, he came up with a bombastic reason stuffed with military jargon to ignore their request and said, “Assuredly, I have already chosen my lieutenant.” And who was his new lieutenant? Indeed, he was a great theorist, a Florentine — a foreigner — named Michael Cassio, who is a dandy and ladies man who has avoided ruining his bachelor fun by avoiding marriage. He has no personal experience of warfare. He has never positioned a squadron in the field. He does not know how to methodically arrange troops on a battlefield any more than a spinster knows. All he knows is textbook theory; our inexperienced Venetian senators can talk as ‘masterly’ as he can. Cassio’s soldiership is all talk and no experience, and all his talk is mere prattle. But he, sir, was chosen to be lieutenant, while I, whose worth has been witnessed in battles at Rhodes, Cyprus, and other places — both Christian places and heathen places in the crusading wars — have been stopped in my advancement. I am like a ship that is in the lee and becalmed — another ship stands between the wind and me and so keeps me from moving forward. This bookkeeper, this petty accountant, will be lieutenant, while I — God help me! — must continue to be his Moorship’s ancient — his standard-bearer, his ensign.”

Anyone in Venice hearing this conversation would realize that Iago and Roderigo were talking about Othello, a Moor — a black North African — who served Venice as a military commander. The word “Moorship” is a portmanteau term combining “Moor” and the respectful term “Worship,” but Iago was not using the term “Moorship” respectfully. As standard-bearer, Iago carried the distinctive flag identifying his unit, but he wanted a promotion to lieutenant — a promotion that Othello had denied to him and given to Michael Cassio instead. This was one of the reasons why Iago hated Othello.

“By Heaven, I would prefer to be his executioner than his standard-bearer,” Roderigo said.

“I know of no way to remedy this situation,” Iago said. “This is the curse of military service. Advancement and promotions come about because of influence and favoritism, and not by seniority, where the person second in line would eventually take over from the first person. Now, sir, judge for yourself whether I in any just way am required to respect and serve and be loyal to the Moor.”

“I would not follow him then,” Roderigo said.

“Oh, sir, know that I follow him only in order to use him for my own advantage. We cannot all be masters, and not all masters will be loyally followed. We see many a duteous and bowing servant knave, who, enjoying his own obsequious bondage, wears out his life, much like his master’s ass, for nothing but provender, and when he’s old, he’s cashiered — he’s fired and left to forage for himself. Let such honest and respectable knaves be whipped. Others there are who, showing outwardly all forms and visages of duty, keep yet their hearts intent on helping themselves. They give their lords shows of service and thrive at their lords’ expense. When they have stuffed their coats with money, they do themselves homage and praise themselves. These fellows have some spirit, and I consider myself to be such a fellow. For, sir, it is as sure as you are Roderigo that, were I the Moor, I would not be Iago — if I were the Moor, I would not be fooled by an Iago because I would see through him and realize that he was putting on a show of loyalty to me. In seeming to follow him, I follow only myself; I am loyal to only myself and I work only to profit myself. As Heaven is my judge, I do not serve him out of love and duty, but only seem to. Why? So that I may profit by so doing. Right now, I do not act openly as I would like to act. Eventually, I will do so. Right now, I will wear my false heart upon my sleeve the way that a servant wears a badge that shows which family he serves. My false heart will falsely say that I truly serve Othello. Later, my actions will match what I truly think and feel. Then, I will allow jackdaws — foolish people — to wise up and peck at my false heart and tear it away, revealing my true character to all. Everyone will then know that I am not what I seem to be. I will reverse the moral of the fable of the bird in borrowed feathers — in the fable, a jackdaw dresses in the feathers of a peacock, but once the peacocks know what the jackdaw is doing, they rip the borrowed feathers (and the jackdaw’s own feathers) away from the jackdaw’s body. The moral of that fable is to not dress in borrowed feathers, but my dressing in borrowed feathers will help me achieve my goals.”

“The thick-lips will have a full fortune if he can get away with this elopement!” Roderigo said.

“Call to and wake up her father. Rouse him out of bed, pester him, poison his delight, proclaim his business in the streets, and incense her kinsmen. Even though her father in a fertile climate dwells, plague him with flies. Even though his joy be real joy, yet throw such changes of vexation on his joy that it may lose some color and joyfulness.”

“Here is her father’s house,” Roderigo said. “I’ll call to him.”

“Do that,” Iago said. “Call to him with such a frightening and dire yell as is used when a fire in a populous city is started by negligence at night.”

“Brabantio, wake up! Signior Brabantio, get up!” Roderigo shouted.

“Wake up!” Iago shouted. “Brabantio! Thieves! Thieves! Thieves! Look after your house, your daughter, and your moneybags! Thieves! Thieves!”

Brabantio, a senator of Venice and the father of Desdemona, appeared at a second-story window and asked, “What is the reason for this terrible racket? What is the matter?”

Roderigo replied, “Signior, is all your family inside your house?”

Iago asked, “Are your doors locked?”

“Why are you asking me these questions?”

“Sir, you have been robbed,” Iago said. “Get dressed. Your heart has burst, and you have lost half your soul. Even now, right now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe. Arise! Arise! Awake the snoring citizens with the bell, or else the black devil will make a grandfather of you. Arise, I say.”

“What, have you lost your wits?” Brabantio asked.

“Most reverend signior, do you know my voice?” Roderigo asked.

“No. Who are you?”

“My name is Roderigo.”

“You are even less welcome now than you were before,” Brabantio said. “I have ordered you not to loiter around my doors. In honest plainness you have heard me say that my daughter is not for you, no matter how much you think you love her, but now you — full of supper and maddening alcoholic draughts that fill you with malicious bravery — have come to disrupt my quiet life.”

“Sir, sir, sir —” Roderigo started to speak.

Brabantio interrupted, “You will learn that my character and place as a senator of Venice give me the power to punish these actions of yours and make you regret them.”

“Patience, good sir!” Roderigo said.

“Why are you two talking to me about my house being robbed? This is Venice. My home is not an isolated house in the countryside.”

“Most grave and respected Brabantio, with sincere and disinterested motivation I come to you,” Roderigo lied.

Iago said to Brabantio, “Damn, sir, you are one of those people who will not serve God even when the devil — who is black — orders you to. You will not take good advice when it comes from a person whom you dislike. Although we come to do you good, you ignore us because you think we are ruffians. Because of that, you’ll have your daughter covered sexually by a Barbary stallion. By Barbary, I mean Arabian, and by Arabian, I mean Moorish. Your grandchildren will neigh to you; you will have racehorses for kin and small Spanish horses for your blood relations.”

Brabantio, who did not recognize Iago’s voice, asked, “What profane wretch are you?”

“I am one, sir, who comes to tell you that your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs — they are having sex.”

“You are a villain.”

“You are —” Iago thought about using a cruelly insulting term, but instead finished his sentence with “— a senator.”

“You will have to pay for tonight’s outrage! I know your identity, Roderigo!”

“Sir, I will pay whatever you think I owe you,” Roderigo said. “If it be your pleasure and you have given most wise consent that your beautiful daughter, just after midnight this night, be transported, with no worse nor better guard than a knave of common hire, a gondolier, and given to the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor — if this is known to you and you have given your permission to your daughter to marry the Moor, as I partly suspect to be the case, judging by your words to us — then we have done you bold and insolent wrongs. But if you do not know what your daughter has done, my code of conduct tells me that you have wrongly rebuked us. Do not believe that I, contrary to all sense of civility, would play and trifle with the respect that is due to you. Your daughter, if you have not given her permission to marry the Moor, has made a disgusting revolt against your wishes. She has tied her duty, beauty, intelligence, and fortunes to an extravagant and wheeling stranger who wanders widely here and everywhere. Immediately look and see whether your daughter is in her bedchamber or elsewhere in your house. If she is, then let us suffer the state’s punishment for lying to and upsetting you.”

Finally convinced that perhaps Roderigo was telling the truth when he said that his daughter was no longer in his house, Brabantio called out to his servants, “Strike a spark on the tinder! Give me a candle! Wake up all my relatives! This report by Roderigo is not unlike my dream. Belief in it oppresses me already. Light, I say! Bring me light!”

He disappeared from the second-story window.

Iago said to Roderigo, “Farewell; I must leave you. It is not wise — if I want to keep my job — for me to be made to give evidence against the Moor, as I will have to if I stay and am found here. The police will make me talk. What we have done may gall the Moor and cause him a little trouble, but it will do him no serious harm. He will not be fired from his position of military leader because he is needed to defend the island of Cyprus and keep Venice safe. Venice’s war against the Turks is ongoing, and the Moor’s competence makes him the right choice to be a military leader. To save their lives, the Venetian senators can find no one with the Moor’s competence and experience to lead their military forces. Although I hate the Moor as much as I do the torments of Hell, yet because it is necessary to keep my job, I must pretend to respect him and put on a good show. You will find the Moor with me at the Sagittary Inn. Lead Brabantio and the men he wakes up there. Farewell.”

Iago left, and Brabantio and some servants carrying torches came out of his house.

“It is too true an evil,” Brabantio said. “My daughter is gone. The rest of my despised life will be spent in bitterness. Now, Roderigo, where did you see her? Oh, unhappy girl! She is with the Moor, did you say? Having experienced this, I have to ask why anyone would want to be a father! How did you know it was she? She has deceived me past all comprehension! What did she say to you?”

He ordered his servants, “Get more candles and light some torches. Wake up all my relatives.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

Note: The above is an excerpt from my book William Shakespeare’s Othello: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here:







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