One of the things Michael Gove was shouting about last week, is the fact that he believes that we are forcing children to dumb down, by presenting them with simplified versions of complex subjects, or worse, forcing them to reduce these complex subjects into simpler versions themselves.
He has mentioned this in relation to a spurious and mis quoted reference to a six week module about World War II, at the end of which, fifteen year old students are supposed to reduced what they have learned by turning it into a version of the Mr. Men and teaching it to 10 and 11 year olds.
He says that this is reductive and stupid. I say that it is quite hard to do.
I know this because I have been having a go at simplifying Shakespeare and retelling the stories for a modern audience. It is a project I’ve been working on for a while and which I had shelved. In light of Mr. Gove’s references, I have decided to revive it, and post the results on my blog.
Here is my version of Othello.
Brabantio is a Venetian nobleman. He is very important. We know this because he has sky high readings on the pomposity meter. He is Mr. Toad in tights. Poop! Poop!
In later years his family will fall on hard times, but they will change their name and revive their fortunes with the Brantano cut price shoe chain. More of that in a few hundred years.
Brabantio is also a prize idiot. We measure this on the: ‘Do You Know Who I Am?’ Index, which plots a person’s sense of their own importance against blithering idiocy as perceived by everyone else, especially close relations.
Brabantio has a daughter called Desdemona. It is not clear who Desdemona’s mother is. Given Brabantio’s personality it seems that the mother either fled the scene early on or killed herself with a butter knife during a particular humiliating dinner party just as Brabantio was telling the host how his patio extension was better than anyone else’s in Venice and cost half as much to build.
On the particular evening in question, Brabantio is roused from his dreams of having the fastest Gondola in Northern Italy and being kissed by women with Rubenesque curves and blingin’ tiaras by some nasty shouting under his window. He blusters forth to find out who is disturbing his rest.
It is Rodrigo, an imbecilic waste of blue blood nobleman who is madly in love with Desdemona, and Iago, the moustache swirling villain of the piece. Iago has just told Rodrigo that Desdemona has run off and married Othello.
Rodrigo is not best pleased. He has been wooing Desdemona unsuccessfully since she was a twink in Brabantio’s eye. He is in fact, a stalker. He is a milksop wuss of a stalker, but a stalker nevertheless. Despite the fact that Desdemona has repeatedly eschewed him with a firm hand and now married someone else, he is still not ready to take no for an answer. Dogged determination combined with steadfast stupidity are his key attributes.
He is the sort of ‘nice’ man that makes women everywhere take up with wife beaters in string vests who drink Jack Daniels for breakfast and have fourteen fingers on each hand. He is the sort of ‘nice’ man that eventually marries a total harridan of a woman out of sheer desperation. Twelve children and a chihuahua later when she is demanding platinum teaspoons and shoes with koi carp laminated into the heels he goes postal and shoots her and then himself. This is Rodrigo.
Iago has sussed out Rodrigo in an instant and has decided to make him a pawn in his game to destroy Othello by messing with his mind and then deading him. Iago is a smiling psychopath in tights, and has just finished his entry level GNVQ in torturing small animals. He is now moving on to bigger prey. Othello is perfect for his purposes. by the time he is finished with him he will be Doctor Iago MSEVIL. Mwahahahahah!
Othello, decides Iago, needs to be taken down a peg or two. Othello was a slave who was co-opted into the Venetian military and somehow survived to become a General. He is a warrior. He doesn’t mind getting messy and is handy with his fists. His ability to a) not get killed and b) win battles has made him rather popular, despite having the great misfortune to be black.
The Venetians are not keen on blackness in general. Unfortunately, if they want to obliterate their enemies from the face of the earth they are going to have to go along with it. They do this with exceedingly bad grace. If it had escaped your notice for a nano-second that Othello was black they wouldn’t leave you in the dark for long. It seems to be the law that they refer to his skin colour at least once every iambic pentameter.
Iago is pissed off because not only is Othello a) black and b) a winner, he has also been promoted to the role of general. This does not sit well with Iago, particularly because Othello has chosen to make one Michael Cassio his lieutenant instead of Iago. Iago has the rather strange role of ‘ancient’, which I believe means ‘dogsbody’. Iago is not well suited to the role of lackey. He prefers the role of giggling, flesh eating evil maniac.
Iago has also heard a rumour going round the gondolas that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia. He thinks it probably isn’t true, but just in case it is he’s going to ruin and murder Othello just to be sure. Safety first.
Iago has just imparted the joyous news of Desdemona’s marriage to Rodrigo. He has sworn to Rodrigo that he will help him revenge himself on Othello (he’s black you know) and get Desdemona to change her mind about eschewing Rodrigo. Rodrigo takes it as a personal slight that she has chosen to marry a black man over him. Rodrigo is a fool to himself. Desdemona would probably pick to marry her own brother over Rodrigo and no court in the land would convict her.
Rodrigo imparts the joyous nuptial news to Brabantio who swears blind that it cannot be true. Desdemona is a good girl. Desdemona would never get a tattoo and hang around the local shopping centre smoking B&H and eating chips on a school night. Desdemona is safely tucked up in bed refreshing herself for the morning and awaiting a joyous morning of hearing more anecdotes about her heroic father. Except she isn’t.
Brabantio cannot believe that Desdemona would willingly marry Othello (he’s black you know). Clearly Othello has been practising some Voodoo vibes on her and has mojo’ed her into marrying him. He rushes off to the Duke of Venice to demand justice, lynchings and big white pointy hats with the eye holes cut out for all.
Brabantio gets to the palace just as Othello schleps up to save the day. While he has been getting married under cover of darkness, those pesky Turks have sneaked off to Cyprus and are trying to usurp the Venetian’s rule. The Duke is not best pleased. He wanted to turn Cyprus into an infinity pool with a cabana, and now those pesky Ottomites are going to ruin everything. He has called Othello to sail off stat and save the day.
Brabantio doesn’t give a fig about Cyprus. He wants his daughter back and he doesn’t want any brown babies thank you Wayne. Who will cut his toast into triangles if Desdemona is going to run off for some military lovin’? It’s just not fair.
He makes this perfectly clear by leaping about the Duke’s palace in a most undignified way, moaning on and on about blackness and toast and mojo until everyone is heartily sick of the sight of him.
Othello keeps his cool. He is called to answer for his actions. He very foxily says that he doesn’t need mojo because he is a mighty warrior who is sex on a stick. Everyone believes him except Brabantio. Othello offers to call for Desdemona to testify to what a cool dude he is and how she couldn’t resist his manly charms and the fact that he is an ace kisser and whizzo in bed is more than enough for her. He fondles his sword lasciviously and looks dangerous. He also offers to let Brabantio see Desdemona’s tattoo. It is a giant Rasta smoking a spliff on her left buttock.
Desdemona appears. She throws herself at Othello, licks him all over and winks cheekily at Brabantio. She shows everyone how she can blow smoke rings and refuses to go home with her father because he is a boring old fart and embarrassing to boot. There is a deafening silence as everyone acknowledges the wisdom of her words despite her young age and questionable taste in men (he’s black you know).
Brabantio has clearly been hoist by his own petard. Nobody feels sorry for him and he goes home after having pointedly warned Othello that if she could fool her father, she will probably deceive him too. Yar, boo, sucks.
Othello arranges to sail off to Cyprus and save the day. Desdemona is to follow with Iago and his wife Emilia who will now be Desdemona’s maid. Iago is not happy about this state of affairs because he has been left to look after the girls and cannot prove his manly hairy chestedness. This fuels his need for revenge.
He persuades Rodrigo to cash in all his land for money and enlist. This way Rodrigo can follow them to Cyprus and be near Desdemona while Iago ‘helps’ him to win her back using all Rodrigo’s money. Rodrigo agrees which just goes to prove what a gullible idiot he is.
We all go to Cyprus where in the space of a scene change Othello has defeated the Turks and drawn up the blue prints for the Duke’s infinity pool. There is much rejoicing except for Iago who was hoping that Othello may have been blown to bits by the enemy to save him the effort of all that complicated planning in the hot sun. Now he has to buy a sun hat and get on with it. Another black mark against Othello. Unwillingness to be blown to bits by enemy, check. Cost of sun hat, three groats, check.
Michael Cassio is Othello’s second in command. He is a bit of a smoothie. He is one of those noblemen who have bought their commission, don’t like getting their uniform dirty and cry if they have to shoot someone. His favourite job is escorting Desdemona around and kissing her hand. He thinks she is lovely. He bleats and pants a lot in her presence. He says it is duty. We know it probably isn’t. We are not that sorry that Iago is going to do him in. He is an annoying tosser with flicky hair. He says things like ‘Heeellloooo Lay deeezz’ and simpers a lot.
Iago gets cheesed off with this after about ten seconds of setting foot on Cyprus. He knows that Cassio is a weedy girl and arranges an evening out for MEN in which drinking, shouting and imbibing of ale takes place. Cassio tries to cry off on the grounds that after one Babycham he is anyone’s. This cuts no ice with the militia and after sniffing the froth on the top of someone’s Cinzano and lemonade, Cassio is three sheets to the wind. It is but the work of a moment for Iago to go from arranging close harmony singing amongst the brotherhood of man to conjuring a brawl in which Cassio gets stuck in and flails about squeaking and slobbering. It is very noisy and hairy. The smell of testosterone, Lynx and brown ale floats across the calm of a Cypriot night, spoiling it for innocent holiday makers and disguised Turks trying to make a quiet getaway.
Othello is forced to leave Desdemona in the middle of page 49 of the Karma Sutra in order to sort it out. He is not best pleased. He never knew girls could be that bendy. He demotes Cassio to third shepherd and goes back to bed. Cassio blubs like a girl because he has lost his reputation.
Iago says he will help him to get his old job back and Cassio, tired and emotional, stupidly agrees to accept help from the man picked out in a line up as ‘man most likely to profit from Cassio’s downfall.’ He suggests that Cassio ask Desdemona for help getting back into Othello’s good books, and he can do this by hanging about with her endlessly and mooning at her wimpishly. This is bound to impress Othello no end. Cassio can’t believe his luck. He gets to hang out with a bee you ti ful lay dee and get his old job back. It seems too good to be true. That’s because it is.
Iago is very impressed of himself, gives himself ten out of ten, a smiley face and a gold star for work well done.
Iago mentions in passing to Othello while they are looking at tiles for the cabana, that he thinks Cassio might be getting hot to trot with Desdemona. He has absolutely no proof whatsoever. Consequently Othello pooh poohs this idea for all of thirty seconds before believing it vehemently and cursing and grinding and moaning.
Rather than hot footing it over to Desdemona and having it out with her, Othello broods and wallows, wallows and broods. He does think to ask for proof from Iago at one point, but you know from the first moment that it’s a done deal and that Desdemona is toast. Despite her tattoos and cheap taste in cigarettes you can’t help feeling sorry for the woman being married to such an idiot. The men in her life have not exactly done well by her, pillock of a father, stalker for a wooer and green eyed monster for husband. The Gods have not been kind.
Desdemona has a handkerchief that Othello gave her. It is embroidered with strawberries. It was a love token from him while they were wooing. This shows you the sort of treatment from men that Desdemona is used to. Most women would expect diamonds or chocolates. She is thrilled with a second hand handkerchief with fruit on it. She needs to get out more.
Iago finagles Emilia to purloin the handkerchief. Emilia, despite being quite canny for the rest of the play, shows a remarkable lack of judgement at this point and hands it over without thinking very hard about what the hell a middle aged soldier would want with an embroidered hankie. She clearly has her mind on higher things, like how to get blood stains out of white tunics for example.
Iago takes the fated hankie and drapes it artistically in Cassio’s room. Cassio finds it and wanders about aimlessly with it, waving it in the air. Iago arranges for Othello to hide in the shrubbery and see this hankie waving. Othello puts two and two together. He immediately dismisses the idea that Cassio might want to take up Morris dancing in favour of the fact that he is bound to be shagging his wife. As you do.
Othello goes mental. He keeps running into Desdemona and demanding to know why she is behaving like a strumpet. She thinks the heat is getting to him. Instead of saying: ‘Look love. Come and have a lie down and after a bun and a fag we’ll talk.’ She merely keeps wittering on about how Othello needs to be nice to Cassio. This drives Othello even more bonkers.
He asks her where her hankie is and she totally blows it. She panics because she has lost it and doesn’t want to confess. Instead she says she can’t bring it for him now because she’s put it somewhere safe, blah, blah and tries to throw him off the scent by harping on about Michael Bloody Cassio again. She was definitely wearing her wrong decision bodice on this particular occasion. Othello is now absolutely convinced she is guilty as charged and goes totally off his rocker.
He instructs Iago to off Cassio and lays plans to murder Desdemona so that he can get his life back to normal. He may be great at military campaigns but he clearly hasn’t got much of a ten year life plan going on.
Iago is insane with excitement by now. He cannot believe his luck at being stranded on an island with such a bunch of trusting dimwits. It is like Christmas and birthday all at once. If only all evil supervillains could have breaks like these, the world would be much less densely populated, except for men wearing leather driving gloves stroking white cats.
Iago arranges for a complicated night time rendezvous in which through his devious machinations he coerces Rodrigo the stalker into giving him his last fiver for the privilege of stabbing Cassio the fop in the belief that this will make Desdemona love him. Clearly he has not read ‘The Rules’.
While the rozzers are bumbling about aimlessly failing to help anyone, Iago sneaks across and murders Rodrigo, implicating Cassio’s whore, who only popped up a scene ago, with the sole purpose of being implicated in murder. She exits stage left, job well done.
Iago flees with the vague regret that Rodrigo made a better stalker than a murderer. He merely managed to give Cassio a nasty limp rather than kill him outright. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
While all this is going on, half of the Duke’s palace has turned up from Venice to congratulate Othello and let Desdemona know that her father has died, probably ran himself over in his new jet powered gondola. Surely all this is cause for a big celebration. They run from the boat wearing party hats and blowing trumpets. The Duke’s officials are wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the legend: ‘Partay On Dudes! Cyprus 1549’.
When they get to the official partay headquarters it is all a bit of a downer to find Desdemona weeping and bewildered while Othello smites his beard and runs about denouncing her for a strumpet to all and sundry. These are not the qualities they looked for in a leader. They wonder if it is because he is black.
They turn to minions for information only to find that they are either fraternising with criminal whores, limping, cashiered, drunk or dead. Explanations are not forthcoming.
Desdemona has a nasty headache. She cannot handle this sort of pressure and dreams wistfully of listening to her father chuntering on about his latest brilliant plans and the stink of Venetian drains. Emilia comforts her with a Shakespearean version of the; ‘All men are bastards,’ schtick. It does not help. Instead Desdemona takes to her bed to sing a sad song about willow trees. This does not help either.
It is the song of the willow trees that finally tips Othello over the edge. It no longer matters how bendy she is, he knows from previous experience of tragic plays that once a woman starts singing about shrubbery it is only a matter of time before she runs mad and drowns herself. He’s not letting her get away with it that easily. She belongs to him and if anyone’s going to do her in it’s going to be him. He didn’t shell out for that extra boat to Cyprus just so that she could kill herself, ungrateful cow.
He wanders round her room for several hours, sighing and crashing into furniture, declaiming how torturous it is that his wife is forcing him to murder her and how it’s really not fair on a man when he’s got to be a military genius, and how is he supposed to fit everything in. Nobody understands the pressures of modern life. Etc, etc.
All that singing must really have taken it out of Desdemona. She finally wakes up after about four weeks of loud moping from her soon to be murderer. She quite reasonably demands to know why he thinks he has to murder her and couldn’t they just have a nice cup of tea and a game of Scrabble instead? He is not convinced, he is a sore loser and she is very good at triple letter word scores. Losing to a girl is the last thing he needs right now. His ego couldn’t take another battering. He strangles her very badly.
Everyone else who is not dead rushes into the bedroom seconds after it is too late. Clearly they were fed up with her too and were hovering outside the door waiting for him to do the evil deed so they could pretend they were sorry they had been just that little bit too late.
Desdemona spoofs them a bit by sitting up, telling everyone she has been murdered and then dying again. This is pretty miraculous for a girl with a crushed windpipe. Nobody ever comments on this which is a little unfair. She may have been a brainless bint, but credit where credit is due. Everyone is a little spooked and they make sure she truly is dead before bemoaning her fate, again.
Emilia gets cross about everyone cluttering up the bedroom and starts shouting at everyone about how lovely Desdemona was. Nobody believes her until Iago hoves into view and starts behaving like a shifty, evil criminal. Considering he has been Mr. Cool as a cucumber up until this point this is not very professional behaviour at all. It makes you realise why Othello picked Cassio in the first place as his lieutenant. Clearly Iago is alright until the crucial moment and then just goes to pieces.
The hankie story gets bandied about until everyone is heartily sick of it and Iago stabs Emilia and finally confesses just to get everyone to shut up. When questioned further he refuses to say another word, but it is too late. Nobody cares now you silly man. The play is nearly over and you are just not cool anymore. Call yourself a villain? All respect is lost for you and your evil ways.
Meanwhile Othello is slowly waking up to what a gigantic horse’s ass he has been. He fails to ask Iago: ‘Is it because I is black?’ which would have been excellently poetic and prophetic of an Ali G moment. The knowledge that not only has he killed the only woman who was ever likely to fancy him, and who could stick her toes in her ears, and the fact that he has missed his cue yet again, drives him to despair. He takes out his secret sword, which he has stashed about his person and kills himself.
Cassio is left to pick up the pieces, which is very hard considering he is on crutches. Everyone else still thinks he is a big girl’s blouse and brought it on himself. They get back into the boat, take their party hats off and slink back to Venice in high dudgeon.