The following was taken from Giulio Ricordi's production book, Disposizione Scenica written for Otello. This is taken from the preface which was written by Arrigo Boïto. (Budden 1984, 326-9).
All theatrical artists, even the greatest, should have engraved upon their memories the following words, which were written three centuries ago yet which still today remain the most perfect and the most modern lesson on acting that has ever been devised.
Here is the lesson:
'Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines: Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I might say, whirlwind of your passion you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings. . .I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-Herods Herod. . .
'Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'ersteph not the modesty of nature; for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as t'were, the mirror up to nature. . .
'O, there be players that I have seen play - and heard others praise, and that highly - not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Chrisitian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought. Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.'
These words are Shakespeare's ( Hamlet,Act III, scene ii) and three centuries have passed - not a year more, not a year less. We have thought it useful to remind the artists of these words before indicating the main outlines of the characters of Otello very broadly and roughly so as to make ourselves understood by all who may read us.
Let us begin with the one who gives his name to the tragedy.
Jealousy! The word has been spoken. Iago has first stabbed the Moor to the heart and then put his finger on the wound. Otello's torture has begun. The whole man changes: he was wise, sensible, and now he raves; he was strong and now he waxes feeble; he was just and upright and now he will commit a crime; he was strong and hale and now he groans and falls about and swoons like one who has taken poison or been smitten by epilepsy. Indeed Iago's words are poison injected into the Moor's blood. The fatal progress of that moral blood-poisoning should be expressed in all the fullness of its horror. Otello should undergo, phase by phase, all the most fearful torments of the human soul - doubt, fury, spiritual overthrow. Otello is the supreme victim of the tragedy and of Iago. If personification of an abstract idea were not a frigid, false, puerile and altogether stale artifice in the theatre one could say that Otello is Jealousy and Iago Envy.
The crassest of mistakes, the most vulgar error into which any artist attempting this role can possibly fall is to play him as a kind of human demon; to give him a Mephistophelean sneer and make him shoot Satanic glances everywhere. Such an artist would make it all too plain that he had understood neither Shakespeare nor the drama which we are discussing.
Every word spoken by Iago is on the human level - a villainous humanity if you'd like, but still human. He should be young and well-favoured. Shakespeare makes him out to be twenty-eight. Cinzio Giraldi, the author of the story from which Shakespeare derived his masterpeice, says of Iago: `An ensign of a most handsome presence, but of the most villainous nature that the world has ever known.'
He must be handsome and appear genial and open and falsely bonhomous; everyone believes him to be honest except his wife who knows him well. If he did not possess great charm and an appearance of honesty he could not be the consummate deceiver that he is.
One of his talents is the faculty he possessses of changing his personality according to the person to whom he happens to be speaking, so as to deceive them or to bend them to his will.
Easy and genial with Cassio; ironic with Roderigo; apparently good-humored, respectful and humbly devoted towards Otello; brutal and threatening with Emilia; obsequious to Desdemona and Lodovico. Such are the basic qualities, the appearance and the various facets of this man.
contributed by Stephen L. Parker