I am, as previously mentioned, more of a Marlowe fan. However, in my final semester at uni (of which I now only have two weeks left), I took an elective in Shakespeare. I had taken a Shakespeare elective last year, and the plays on this course were (bar one) not ones I had previously studied at uni. There were plays which I had not read before, and absolutely loved; Henry IV and Love’s Labour’s Lost, but there were two plays I was absolutely dreading. I studied Othello and The Tempest in school, and to say that I was bored at the prospect of trawling through them again would be an understatement. Yet, I found myself pleasantly surprised when I revisited them, and I found a lot to like upon second readings.
Othello was the first play which I re-read, more because I was able to recall a bit more about the plot. I had never really liked the character of Othello, and I still don’t now. Unlike a lot of Shakespeare, I actually don’t think this play requires much suspension of disbelief. If your best friend who you have known for years tells you that your partner is being unfaithful, and provides evidence (however scanty), a lot of people would not extend the benefit of the doubt to their partner (a lot of people also wouldn’t strangle them either, admittedly). Desdemona is a character who I rank with Cordelia from King Lear, absolutely dreary. People point out to me that she is defiant at times, that still doesn’t redeem her for me, she’s far too subservient to her husband.
Iago is the saving grace for me. He is the plot. Re-reading the play certainly justified Ian McKellen’s claim, in my mind at least, that the play should have been called Iago. He is the ultimate malcontent, and has been brought to life by some of the best Shakespeare actors. He is, in my view, one of the most complex characters ever created by Shakespeare. I am not always such a sucker for a villain, I didn’t like Aaron from Titus Andronicus, didn’t enjoy anything in Claudius from Hamlet, and quite simply found Richard II boring. But there are some who stand out, and Iago is definitely one of those characters. He is always driving the play forward, and he makes it all look so easy.
Now for The Tempest, I was particularly dreading that. Ensuring that I’d had a solid eight hours sleep the night before and a large black coffee in my hand, I started to read what I always remember as being the worst thing I had ever read. Seriously. It was the text for my English Lit GCSE, and I hated every moment of studying it. To my surprise, I found the opening scene funny, and the first scene with Prospero and Miranda also got me thinking a lot. I began thinking a lot about broader themes, of empire and control, and what it means to be human.
I am a fan of moral ambiguity, and I am in a lot of things a subjectivist (too much Nietzsche at a young age), so revisiting Caliban was something of a field day for me. I have never been so torn over a character, because he’s clearly done an awful thing, but I think he’s also been subjected to awful things. Prospero is a pretty awful person, he loves the sound of his own voice and brings sanctimony soaring to new heights. Prospero came to a location and usurped it from the rightful owner, even after it was done to him. Caliban has some of the most poignant speeches in the play, and seems to genuinely delight in the island and wishes to be left alone. So it really isn’t as simple as viewing Prospero as the wronged father and Caliban as the antagonist. Prospero is affronted at Caliban’s attempt on Miranda, but thinks it is justifiable to use her virginity as a bargaining chip for his political gain.
I’m now in the midst of writing my last ever essay at uni, on both of these plays. I think it goes to show that sometimes it can be worth giving some books/plays/poems a second attempt, they have the potential to mean something completely different several years down the line.