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Russell Baker [imagemap with 9 links]

Russell Baker on Othello

Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.

More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.

The scriptwriter for tonight's show is Andrew Davies, one of the best in the business, and certainly one of the cheekiest.

Some of you will remember his scripts for Moll Flanders, Mother Love, and House of Cards. Now consider a few of the liberties he takes with Shakespeare in the Othello you're about to see:

First of all, he's thrown out all of Shakespeare's beautiful blank verse. Not a line of iambic pentameter remains. Instead the characters speak the modern English of TV cop shows.

Davies is out to do something extraordinary. He's not interested in doing one more modern-dress production of Shakespeare. He wants to turn a 400-year-old Elizabethan tragedy into a modern television movie.

So he throws out the poetry.

Then he gives the characters modern names. Othello becomes John Othello;Desdemona becomes Dessie; Iago becomes Ben Jago.

Then, in an act of consummate nerve, Davies does something Shakespeare failed to do in the original Othello. He gives the villain a plausible motive for hating his friend: He makes him a disappointed bureaucrat conniving to get his boss's job. What could be more modern?

Some people will probably think it's sacrilege to tinker with Shakespeare's Othello like this.

But Othello was not really Shakespeare's to begin with. Scholars say he took it from a story published in Italy when he was still an infant.

Now, Othello by Andrew Davies.

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