Gimme a break!

A purely production-related question:

Othello is a long play. Only six plays in the Canon are longer. So even with cuts there’s no way to play this without an intermission. But where do you break it?

Of the four video versions that provided an intermission, three of them (the 1981 Miller-directed BBC Complete Works version, the 1989 South African production with John Kani, and the 2007 Shakespeare’s Globe production) break the play at the end of Act Three, Scene Three, with Iago’s line “I am yours forever” (III.iii.480), nearly 300 lines after the play’s midpoint, which occurs in the same scene.

The 1989 Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Trevor Nunn makes the break a little earlier, with Othello’s exit after the pushing away of his handkerchief and it falling to the floor. The second act then begins with Emilia’s finding of the handkerchief. This, too, occurs in the same midpoint scene, just 100 lines after the actual midpoint.

Of the two, I like the latter.

In the first breaking, we see the complete turning of Othello from loving, trusting husband to one who demands to hear “within these three days… that Cassio’s not alive” (III.iii.472-3). Which just feels too fast, too easy for Iago. If it’s this easy, can we have any sympathy, any understanding for Othello? If we have no understanding, Othello is just a fool. And if he’s merely a fool, how tragic can this tragedy be?

The second breaking is a little better, with the second half of the seduction-in-reverse of Othello by Iago happening after the break. Plus, for anyone who knows the play, the dropping of that handkerchief is hugely important.

But is this where I’d break it?


I think I might split the difference. I see a break around line 324, after Iago has taken the handkerchief from Emilia and sent her on her way. In the midst of his soliloquy before Othello re-enters. Talking of the handkerchief and his plan for it, he says, “This may do something” (III.iii.324). If we break then, the second act will begin with Iago telling us, “The Moor already changes with my poison” (III.iii.325). The play-world’s time elapsed during the audience-world’s intermission allows for those changes to take place in Othello. This break makes his change more likely and understandable, and creates some level of suspense with “This may do something.”


2 Replies to “Gimme a break!”

  1. If I were staging the play (as distinct from using the material of the play to make another kind of performance) I think I would have to obey the scene break. Act 3, Scene 3 of Othello is one of the great scenes in the whole canon. Its power has something to do with its scope, and the distance Othello travels in such a short time. There is a terrible logic to that journey, even though Othello is deceived. I think that an audience too has to travel that distance in “real time.” I would need an awfully compelling reason to break up the scene as written and insert an intermission there.

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