Tag Archives: Bayes’ Theorem

Seven Risk Theatre Playwriting Exercises

WORKING TITLE PLAYWRIGHTS
RISK THEATRE MASTER CLASS WITH EDWIN WONG
FEBRUARY 13/20 2021

SEVEN RISK THEATRE PLAYWRITING EXERCISES

Hi everyone, Edwin Wong here and I’ve got an awesome master class on risk theatre for you. This master class started when playwright and risk theatre finalist Emily McClain put me in touch with Amber Bradshaw, the managing artistic director at Working Title Playwrights, the leading new play incubator in the Southeast. Thank you to Emily, Amber, and Working Title Playwrights for this wonderful opportunity to connect. It’s great to see y’all here. Thank you for coming!

Here’s the story of risk theatre. Like Aristotle’s Poetics or Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, risk theatre is a theory of tragedy. One of the purposes of theories of tragedy is to answer the question: “Why do we find tragedy so alluring when it is full of sorrow and suffering? Why are we not, instead, disgusted by it” My answer is that tragedy fascinates because it dramatizes chance and uncertainty. By making risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it keeps audiences in thrall.

While researching probability theory in 2006, the spark of risk theatre occurred. I fed the spark, and, by inaugurating an international drama competition in 2018, the spark became a flame. The contest is now in its third year and awards over $12k in prize money each year. Then, by launching my book in 2019, the flame became a fire. Today, we’re going to set fire to the flames. Theatre is hungry, like fire.

When Amber was asking me to write a little blurb on the class, I thought of continuing the fire metaphor. I was going to create a tagline for the class that read: “Throw more fire into your work instead of throwing more of your work into the fire!” I didn’t have the guts to write that. But, behind the joke is a kernel of truth: my playwriting exercises will put more fire into your work.

I’ve written seven brand new exercises for you to harness the dramatic possibilities in chance, risk, and the unexpected. I’ve modelled these exercises after the playwriting exercises in Mark Bly’s 2020 book: New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting. Bly’s book has helped me out many times, and it’s an honour to use his book as a template. Today’s exercises are adapted from my 2019 book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

In today’s three hour session, I’ll present the exercises. After I present each exercise, we’ll have time to discuss for ten or so minutes before moving on to the next one. Halfway through the session we’ll have ten minute coffee break. In next week’s session, you’ll bring back your responses, and we’ll look at them together. Next week is also a three hour session, so we’ll have time for ten or eleven responses, selected from a lottery process. Chance is, after all, our theme.

Tragedy today has a bad rap. It’s a gloomy, depressing show about kings and queens. No one is lining up to see that. But if we transform tragedy into risk theatre and sell this idea to audiences and theatres, tragedy will come back into vogue. The public’s demand for chance, uncertainty, and the unexpected is insatiable because the problems and possibilities of our time are encapsulated in the concept of risk. When life give you risk, make risk theatre. Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. To make the audio clearer for everyone, I’ll put myself on mute now and I’ll toggle the microphone back on when I’m speaking. 

1          Wong’s “All Eggs in One Basket Exercise”

Have you heard of the expression “to go all-in?” It’s a gambling term. When a gambler goes all-in, the gambler stakes everything on the outcome of one roll, or one card, or one hand. In other words, all the eggs are in one basket. When all the eggs are in one basket, strange things happen. Strange things happen because the gambler has taken on risk. Risk has an uncanny power to multiply the risk taker’s position many times beyond what the risk taker can reasonably cover. It sets up the gambler for a catastrophic failure. These catastrophic failures interest audiences because they are inherently dramatic.

This playwriting exercise came to me when I was reading Paul Lyons’ collection of short stories called: The Greatest Gambling Stories Ever Told: Thirty-One Unforgettable Tales of Risk and Reward. Gamblers, by biting off more than they could chew, seemed to change the fabric of reality: by risk, they connect together all the strands of their life into a defining and explosive moment. Let’s talk about two of these stories: Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid.

The gambler Hermann in Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades discovers the secret to the game of faro (there is never any doubt that the secret is good, even though he gets it from the ghost of the Countess Anna Fedotovna who is a ghost because he’s killed her: in drama we overlook these “details.” Take, for example, Sophocles’ play The Women of Trachis, where Deianeira receives a potion from a dying centaur her husband’s just shot). Back to the story. The secret is to bet everything on the first night on the three card, to do the same thing the second night on the seven, and on the third night on the ace. The first night, he bets 47k rubles on the three. Tchekalinski, the banker, comments that the highest stake is typically 175 rubles. The next night, he bets 94k rubles on the seven, and wins. And the final night, he places 188k rubles on the ace, or what he thought was the ace. The ace wins, but it turns out Hermann had somehow misplaced his bet on the queen of spades, which, in defiance, seems to wink at him. He goes insane.

A similar, and even more concentrated scenario plays out in Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid. In the movie (where the Kid plays out the final hand with greater skill than the novel), the Kid places all his eggs in one basket on the final poker hand. The Kid thinks that his full house has finally beat Lancey “The Man” Howard, who could be holding possibly nothing or perhaps a flush or straight flush. If the Man has nothing or a flush, the Kid wins. If the Man, however, has a straight flush, the Man wins. The odds in a two-handed game of poker, however, of a full house falling to a straight flush is 45,102,784:1 against. Accordingly, the Kid bets all-in, even borrowing $5000 Depression-era dollars to multiply his winnings. But, when the Man does have the straight flush, the Kid is out $15k. How much is that worth? Well, if we look at the prologue to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, that’s the exact price of a two-storey, seven-room house in that era.

Now let’s translate this “all eggs in one basket” scenario to the playwriting world. Consider Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. For eight years, Nora bets all in on her husband’s love and understanding. Like the Cincinnati Kid, she holds a full house. But when it comes time to show her hand, she sees that, far from a full house, all she has is a doll house, and that is enough to break her heart. She bet, like Hermann in Pushkin’s short story, on the king of hearts, but finds, she’s placed all her hopes on a king of spades.

The Exercise

In the “All Eggs in One Basket” exercise, the playwright will place a character in some sort of high-stakes situation. The character really wants something very badly. To get it, the character must go all-in. There can be no plan-B. It is all-or-nothing. Finally, say how the high-stakes situation gets away from the character’s controlling grasp. In 250 words, report back to the group next week the risk event, and how the outcome defies the character’s expectations. If the response reads like a play synopsis, you’re on the right track.

2          Wong’s “Exercise in Human Foibles”

Have you noticed that we all have certain foibles that motivate us to take risk? Generally, we are risk-off. We have been brought up that way. We have been told from childhood that “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Folk tales also reinforce the need for moderation: Aesop has a tale of a boy who gets his hand stuck in the jar trying to take out more than his fair portion of nuts (“The Boy and the Filberts”).

Risk-off characters are stable. For risk theatre, we need risk-on characters. How do we coax characters to turn up the risk, to flip the switch from risk-off to risk-on?

Have you heard of this stock called GameStop, ticker GME on the New York Stock Exchange? It’s been lighting up the news lately. I have a fascination for stock market bubbles: the Dutch Tulip Bubble in the 1600s, where tulips would sell for the price of waterfront mansions; the South Sea Bubble in which Isaac Newton lost a fortune, famously lamenting that he could “calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people;” the Roaring Twenties; the Dot-Com Bubble; and many more. These bubbles are the object of much study. It was while reading Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s A Short History of Financial Euphoria—a book short in length but long in the wit and dry humour—that this exercise occurred to me. In reviewing three centuries of financial bubbles, Galbraith identifies triggers where previously rational and risk-off market participants would engage in irrational and risk-on speculation. It occurred to me that not only normally risk-on types of characters, but also nominally risk-off characters—with the right motivation—may be inspired to engage in dangerous speculation.

Myself, I love risk-on types of characters: Faust, Joan of Arc, Don Rodrigo. But these brash characters are not to suitable for all audiences, who tire of their larger-than-life excess. Sometimes audiences enjoy characters with constant, loving, and noble natures who value reflection and prudence over risk. Othello is such a character. His “constant, loving, noble nature” makes him ill-suited for crimes of passion. Shakespeare, however, triggers Othello’s speculative tendencies by putting him “into a jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure.”

The Exercise

In the “Exercise in Human Foibles,” the playwright will take a mild-mannered character—one of their own or a character from a well-known play—and describe, in 250 words, how a mild-mannered nature can be encouraged to risk everything. In this exercise, you will concentrate on triggering the character’s all-too-human foibles. The emotions of greed, love, jealousy, and anger, are all proven triggers. Or you can focus on different human drives. The drive to keep up with the Joneses is identified by Galbraith as one of the factors that incite financial euphoria: even mild natures cannot stand watching neighbours get ahead.

3          Wong’s “Taking a Page from History Exercise”

One of the best pieces of advice in university was given to me by Leslie Shumka. She, in turn, got it from Keith Bradley. The advice: “Read widely, especially outside your field.” At the time, I was young, and didn’t understand. But it stuck in my head, as Leslie’s tips were usually helpful. That it came from Bradley also helped the idea stick. He was one of the gods in the department who was alternately feared and worshipped by the students, and perhaps by some of the other professors as well. He was the preeminent expert on Roman slavery, and we always thought of him as a terrific atheist, since his position was that Christianity played an absolute zero role in making slaves’ lives better. I always found it ironic that he left Victoria to finish his career at a Notre Dame, a Catholic university. At any rate, we always paid attention to what he had to say. But, at that time, I was busy reading more and more things in my field. “Why would I want to read stuff that has nothing to do with me?” I thought.

In time, I would understand. If you only read within your field, you’ll be reading what everyone else is reading and when you create, chances are you’ll be creating things similar to the things your colleagues are creating. When audiences see your shows, they may notice generic similarities in theme, plot, and image. If you want to create something that truly stands out, you have to read widely. You’ll be inspired by new ideas and find new connections. When the young Bob Dylan moved to New York in the early 60s, he would spend his days in the public library. While everyone else reading the most recent newspapers, Dylan would read the papers from the 1800s. His favourite papers were the ones from the Civil War period. You can hear this influence in his songs Nettie Moore or ‘Cross the Green Mountain. Reading widely gives him a unique take.

One of my favourite genres outside drama is history, especially the philosophy of history. The biological metaphor of nations undergoing birth, growing pains, maturity, consolidation, and decline in the German historian Oswald Spengler. The process of an eternal recurrence in the Hellenistic historian Polybius. The study of power in the Greek historian Thucydides, power that could even change the meanings of words and language.

This exercise arose while reading the historians. I noticed that they start their histories at some explosive point in time. Herodotus isn’t talking about a random section of history, but the Persian Wars, the greatest of wars up to that period of time. Thucydides one-ups Herodotus—by his time, the Persian Wars seemed like a minor skirmish—now the most badass conflict is the Peloponnesian War. Homer is even more specific. He doesn’t start at a random point in the Trojan War, but at that moment when Agamemnon insults Achilles, a slight that will result in the death of thousands, both Greek and Trojan alike.

The Exercise

In the “Taking a Page from History Exercise,” you’ll think like a historian. Come up with a historical setting and tell the group, in 250 words, the dramatic potential of this setting. Many of the most memorable plays find their inspiration from history. Macbeth is inspired by Holinshed’s Chronicles. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is set during the Salem witch trials. Many other opportunities are also possible: scientific revolutions, the unintended consequences of great inventions, or historical pivots. The focus of this exercise isn’t a plot or the characters, but to focus on the setting itself, to find a setting out of which risk develops organically. Many possibilities present themselves here. Did you know, for example, that Sophocles’ Oedipus rex is set in a plague and was produced during a time of plague? The Crucible as well, while set during the witch trials, speaks to more contemporary events: the communist witch hunt. So too, Macbeth, while dramatizing eleventh century English-Scottish relations, speaks to the audience about King James, a Scottish king wearing the English crown.

This sort of historical distance is a useful asset to dramatists who wish to speak on current events without touching their audiences’ raw nerves. Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Miller were successful. Less successful was the ancient Athenian playwright Phrynichus. He wrote a moving play on the sack of Miletus, a sister city of Athens. It moved the audience to tears. But because the trauma of losing a sister city was too fresh, the state fined him 1000 drachmas, not a small amount, as 1000 drachmas could keep a family of four going for a year. In addition, they forbid the play from ever being produced again.

4          Wong’s “Birnam Wood Exercise”

Low-probability, high-consequence events are great fun because they’re part of a metatheatrical game between dramatists and audiences. By metatheatrical I mean the dramatist is talking directly to the audience. The game is played like this: the dramatist drops a hint of some impending low-probability event. The audience picks up this hint and starts trying to figure out how the dramatist will bring it about. The challenge is that, because the event is low-probability, it is hard to bring about.

This game of suspense is fun because it gives the audience skin in the game: they’re invested in the outcome as they try to piece together the clues. They watch the unfolding action with more attention. The game is likewise fun for the dramatist. It opens up fun devices such as misdirection or delay. The game also invests dramatists to use all their skills, as bringing about the impossible or the highly improbable is like pulling off a magic trick.

I don’t remember exactly where I got this idea from, it’s been so long. But it occurred to me when I was reading a book or an article by Alfred Hitchcock. He was talking about suspense as a game between the writer and the audience. Around the same time, while reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, it struck me how Hitchcock had nailed it on the head. You can know exactly what will happen, but it’s still full of suspense because you don’t know how the dramatist will get there. Trying to guess how the dramatist gets there is all the fun.

The great fun in Macbeth is trying to figure out how Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill and how Macbeth will run across a man not of woman born. I think that the audience—as soon as they hear about Birnam Wood, and about the man not of woman born, and Macbeth’s protestations that it couldn’t happen—think the opposite: that it will happen. And it does happen: Birnam Wood comes when Malcolm orders his troops to camouflage themselves with branches cut down from the wood and Macbeth meets the man not of woman born when Macduff tells him he was born by C-section. Each time I see this—even though I’ve seen it a thousand times—I think “Ah—this is great!” And I think of what a great joke the messenger missed when he told Macbeth that the wood is coming. He could have said: “The copse are coming! The copse are coming!” (thank you to David Konstan for that funny). Well, if nobody is laughing, this is why I am leading a master class on tragedy, and not comedy! For a more detailed analysis of Macbeth, click here.

I was wondering if I should bring up Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, a play that even classicists hardly read. I think I will, because it illustrates better than anything else how, even if the outcome is known to all, a great dramatist can generate suspense. Bear with me, it’s tricky to explain, but, I think, if you follow along, you’ll be amazed how Aeschylus pulls it off. For a more detailed analysis of Seven, click here.

Civil war rages in Thebes, fought between Oedipus’ two sons. Thebes has seven gates. One son, along with six captains, defends Thebes, one at each gate. Another son, along with six captains, lays siege to Thebes, one at each gate. The worst-case scenario happens if brother confronts brother at the final gate. The Greeks had rituals to purify spilt blood. They had no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood, which would release demonic spirits called the Furies. You don’t want the Furies to come out. The worst-case scenario only happens at the final gate, because, if the brothers meet before the final gate, they could substitute another captain. Oh, and another thing, the captains draw lots to determine their gate assignations. That is to say, all the gate assignations are random.

The audience knows that the brothers will kill each other. The action is part of the stories they’ve known since childhood—their myths. How this will happen in the play, however, they do not know. Okay. So the way Aeschylus sets this up is that each captain bears a shield emblazoned with a fantastic heraldic device. After the captains are assigned their gates, you can tell from the images on the shields who the gods favour—through the crack of probability and chance the gods reveal their will. In the play, we see the events unfold from the point of view of the brother defending the city. Starting from gate one, all the shield matchups overwhelmingly favour him. If the attacker carries an image of, say, the fire-breathing dragon Typhon on his shield, just by coincidence the defender has the image of Typhon’s slayer on his shield. This is a sign that the gods favour your cause. From gates one to six, by some amazing coincidence, the matchups so overwhelmingly favour the brother defending Thebes that the audience forgets that, each time a set of captains goes to the gates that isn’t one of the brothers, the odds of the worst-case scenario that brother confronts brother at gate seven goes up. And that is precisely what happens! As things get subjectively better and better, they are, in reality, getting objectively worse and worse. I love this play so much because there is no other play that works suspense so well. On the one hand, the fated outcome is getting more and more objectively likely, but, on the other hand, things are going so well it subjectively appears it could never happen. In antiquity, this play was an audience favourite, produced again and again. I can see why. I wish this play would come back into the canon. I’ve championed this play tirelessly in my risk theatre vision of tragedy.

The Exercise

In the “Birnam Wood Exercise,” the playwright will take a modern day prophecy and say, in 250 words, how, on first appearances, it could not happen, but then find a back door through which it comes to pass. Modern day prophecies can be all sorts of things. It can be the Titanic, the ship that could not be sunk. It could be the Great Depression: a few weeks before it broke out, the celebrity Yale economist Irving Fisher was telling the world that stocks had reached “a permanently high plateau.” It could be the behemoth oil rig Deepwater Horizon, with all its blowout preventers, blind shear rams, and sundry failsafes. In tragedy, there’s always a sliding door, a letter, a handkerchief.

In this exercise, the playwright finds the simplest strategy possible to communicate to the audience that the catastrophic event that can’t happen will happen. The focus is on simplicity. Usually when I tell people about how the impossible happens because Macduff was born by C-section, they groan a little bit. The technique you use to bring about the impossible doesn’t have to be realistic. The audience isn’t looking for that. But what the audience is looking for is that you play this game of suspense with them. With this one, make it simple, even if unrealistic. This is a good one to fight the urge to be clever. The C-section trick in Macbeth elicits groans, but hey, Macbeth is still a pretty good play.

5          Wong’s “O’Neill’s Fog Exercise”

I live on the banks of Esquimalt Harbour, in Victoria, Canada. My “harbour” is really a mud flat that’s different at all times of the day. When the tide’s out the shore recedes 200 metres. When the tide’s in, it looks like you’re looking into the ocean, but, until you get 300-400 metres out, it’s only 2-3 feet deep. In fact there’s an island a couple of hundred metres from shore that you can walk out to, even in high tide. Zodiacs drive all the way in and I’m always surprised their engines don’t bottom out. One cool thing around here are all the different birds: swans, eagles, vultures, gulls, herons, and my favourite, kingfishers. They’re a small bird, the size of my fist. They hover 20-30 feet above the water and will do a 90 degree dive straight in to fish. Daring. The other cool thing out here is the fog. The fog is mysterious, a visual analogy of risk, uncertainty, and the unknown.

One day, I took a photo of the Esquimalt Harbour fog and posted it on Facebook. Chicago playwright Mike McGeever commented on how Eugene O’Neill uses the fog as a barometer of risk: Long Day’s Journey into Night starts in the clear day. As the fog rolls in, Mary dissolves into morphine’s embracing haze. By the end of the play, the fog blankets everything and Mary is all but lost. As I started reading O’Neill’s earlier plays, I realized that O’Neill had been experimenting with the fog trope for at least twenty years, if not even further back. In Annie Christie, his 1921 Pulitzer winning play, there it is on the docks, the fog, full of uncertainty and foreboding, a sign that something will happen.

Risk theatre is meant to be an entertaining theatre, theatre that moves inexorably forwards towards the low-probability, high-consequence flashpoint. All the resources of theatre—language, character, plot, acting, directing—must be used to drive the action forwards. A sometimes overlooked resource to heighten the tension is the stage direction or the recurring device that signals: “Fasten your seatbelts, something is about to happen.”

These devices of stage directions are short gestures that go a long way. Any fans of German cinema here who remember Das Boot, a West German WWII movie from 1981 written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen? The film follows the crew of the submarine U-96 during the Battle of the Atlantic. A handful of times, before a major malfunction, the camera pans towards the instrument cluster and zooms in, for a split second, on a round dial. All the eye can see in this flash is that the dial is marked “Tiefenmesser” and it records the depth of the sub. The further to the right of the dial is, the deeper the sub is. Towards the extreme right, the dial goes into the red. Before the major malfunctions, Petersen will have the camera zoom in and show the hand going into the red. Inevitably, sometimes seconds, sometimes a minute after, an engine will explode, the sub will take water, they lose steering. This motif reminds me of O’Neill’s fog, an early warning sign that something will happen. In the script, it would be a line: “Zoom in on the bathometer.” This line is worth every word, and so much more.

While we don’t have a camera in theatre, this sort of motif can be embedded in stage directions: in can be highbrow, like O’Neill’s fog or Petersen’s Tiefenmesser, or it can be lowbrow like the headband in Rambo. Do you know the headband scene in Rambo?—before he gets into action, he has this red headband that he ties on. Now, whether highbrow or lowbrow, however, stage directions can communicate that something is about to happen. The motif can also be built into the dialogue. In Nicholas Dunn’s play The Value, one of the winners of the Risk Theatre Competition, the protagonist, a character with a sense that he was meant for something greater says, at three pivotal moments: “This … is what happens … .” When workshopping the play, we gave the line a beat and emphasized the deictic quality of this, that this this was pointing to a foreboding sense of a greater destiny revealing itself. The playwright, who is a basketball fan, encouraged Anthony Gaskins, the actor who played this character, to think of the line as something similar to the chalk toss ritual that basketball superstar Lebron James does before games. He chalks his hands and claps his hands together, puffing up the chalk into a cloud. The line became one of the focal points of the play, something spoken by a character to make the audience feel a sense of wonder and awe. It was very good.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will take an existing play—any existing play, whether by the playwright or another playwright—and identify an event that the audience expects will occur. It could a conflict between characters that leads up to a fight. It could be a relationship headed towards an inevitable breakup. It could be the moments where a brother and sister, separated by the contingencies of war for many years, run into each other again. After identifying this event that the audience expects will occur, the playwright will come up with a motif that heralds that something will happen. The motif is to be embedded in the stage directions. It could be a musical motif, a fog horn, the Tiefenmesser, a headband, the chalk toss. If not strictly a stage direction, it should be something that stands in as a stage direction: for example, the moments that the protagonist in Dunn’s The Value says: “This is what happens … .” This motif should be a device that can recur so times in the play before it becomes hackneyed. If it occurs once, the audience can’t tell the signal from the noise. Not yet. Twice the audience starts to catch on. Three times is perfect. Four risks becoming hackneyed.

6          Wong’s Exercise in Dramatic Indeterminacy

Great plays generate great controversy. Think of Sophocles’ Antigone: who is right—Creon, who represents the state, or Antigone, who represents tradition? Think of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—is Nora justified in leaving her husband and children? Here’s a question: would you find Antigone more or less great if the balance inclined definitively towards one or the other? That is to say, if Sophocles had written a play where Creon is right and Antigone is wrong, would it be a better play or a worse play? And the same with A Doll’s House. Is Ibsen’s original play better, or version created in response to the censors who wanted the play to be morally definitive? How much of a play’s greatness comes from the controversy it generates, its ambiguity?

Controversy is possible because of indeterminacy. Critics who take Antigone’s side will pull out quotes that support her position and critics who take Creon’s side will find that Sophocles has given them backup as well. The French playwright Jean Anouilh famously put this principle to work in an adaptation of Sophocles’ play which was performed February 6, 1944 in Paris during the occupation. Both the Free French and the Nazis were in attendance, and both applauded the ending. The legend of this balancing act lives on whenever people talk about this performance.

If indeterminacy is desirable, how do we add it into our plays? This exercise came me to while reading biologist E.O. Wilson’s 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. He’s the scientist who cracked how ants communicate with each other. Ants have a remarkable ability to communicate with one another by using up to twenty signals to signal danger (get away), danger (come help), opportunity, and kinship. He hypothesized that they communicate through pheromones, or smell. The breakthrough involved biologists, mathematicians, chemists, social scientists, and artists. Biologists to understand that the ants have scent glands, mathematicians to model diffusion rates, chemists to isolate the molecules of scent, social scientists to model behavior, and the arts to create the narrative. To Wilson, every jump in knowledge involves the combination of unlikely disciplines. To jump to a higher understanding in playwriting, we’ll take a page out of Wilson’s playbook and bring together two unlikely fields:  mathematics, probability theory, philosophy, and playwriting. Hey, this is risk theatre. It’s different. New blood.

One of the great debates in Shakespeare’s Othello is whether Othello, from his own point of view, had enough information where he could reasonably judge whether he has been cuckolded. In other words, does he achieve what philosophers call moral certainty, moral certainty being that degree of probability so great as to admit no reasonable doubt? Modern statisticians use a one to five percent significance test as a threshold of moral certainty. That means, once they’re 95 to 99 percent certain that the result is not due to chance, they act; they publish their results. Until recently, physicists used a 0.3 percent significance test before they would announce a discovery. That means they’re 99.7% certain that the observation is the real thing rather than a fluke event. Recently, while searching for the Higgs boson, they upped the threshold to 99.99994%.

Does Othello achieve a measure of moral certainty? From a risk theatre perspective, this is the pivot of the play. Some say yes. Some say no. This indeterminacy makes the play great. With a formula called Bayes’ theorem, we will see how much of moral certainty Othello achieves. Bayes’ theorem gives us a way to revise probability estimates as new information becomes available. It’s really cool. First, tell me, based on Iago’s accusations, from the point of view of Othello, that is to say, if you were Othello, what’s the percentage chance you would think you’ve been cuckolded by Desdemona and Cassio when Iago first tells you about it? This number we’ll call the prior probability. We take into account Iago’s reputation for honesty and other hints in the play. We know from the play that it is not enough for Othello to act on.

Next, we take the new data: the handkerchief. From Othello’s point of view, what are the odds that he is a cuckold if he sees Cassio with it? Then, finally, one more piece of information, again, from Othello’s point of view: what are the odds that he is not a cuckold, should he see Cassio with the napkin?

P(C H): posterior probability Othello is cuckold after seeing Cassio with napkin
P(C): prior probability Othello is cuckold before the new information from the napkin test
P(~C): prior probability Othello is not a cuckold before the new information from the napkin test
P(H C): probability Othello is a cuckold, should he see Cassio with his napkin
P(H ∣ ~C): probability Othello is not a cuckold, should he see Cassio with his napkin

Here’s what the formula looks like:

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

And here it is inputted with what I felt to be the probabilities::

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

Othello can be now 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. While this falls short of the 99.99994% percentage (a 1:3.5 million chance that the finding is due to chance) standard while searching for the Higgs boson, it’s in line with what modern statisticians would consider the threshold of moral certainty. The important thing to note, is that, playing with the numbers gives Othello different confidence levels. This fruitful ambiguity is what allow these discussions to happen. To me, that’s what makes this play fascinating: you could argue both sides persuasively. For a more detailed look at Othello, click here.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will go through Shakespeare’s Othello with an eye on how Shakespeare constructs probability in the play. Focus on Shakespeare’s language of moral certainty he uses in the play: “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. After analyzing the construction of probability, the playwright will assign probabilities to populate Bayes’ theorem to determine Othello’s degree of moral certainty, or lack thereof. Then the playwright will propose one way in which Shakespeare could have revised the play to increase Othello’s moral certainty and one way in which Shakespeare could have decreased Othello’s certainty. Finally, the playwright will conjecture the effect of increasing and decreasing Othello’s degree of moral certainty on the audience’s reception of the play. We use Bayes’ theorem in this exercise not because we require mathematical precision, but as a springboard into thinking about certainty and ambiguity.

In this exercise, the playwright asks: does Shakespeare get it right? Or can Othello be improved by making the guilt more or less certain? Would it have been better for Shakespeare to have created a play where certainty could have been achieved absolutely? Finally, after exploring indeterminacy in Othello, the playwright will relate to the group a way of applying indeterminacy into one of the playwright’s own plays. The purpose of this exercise is to find ways of generating controversy. Where there is controversy, audiences and critics will keep talking about your play. Where there is certainty, the debate quickly ends. That’s no fun. Indeterminacy is a great tool to captivate audiences.

7          Wong’s Exercise in the Price You Pay

Why is it hard to write tragedy? To this complicated question, I offer a simple answer: few dramatists have the heart to do to the character what they must: that is, complete obliteration. The tragic life is nasty, brutish, and short. Tragedy is an extremist art. Consider Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. All the poor guy wants to do is to lift the plague. He’s the king and it’s killing all his people. Look what Sophocles does to him. He strips him of his kingdom, takes away his crown, takes away his family, his dignity, and even his eyes. Is it not a bit much? Consider Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear. King Lear is a doddering old fool. Look what Shakespeare puts him through. Is it not too much? When Lear says: “I will do such things— / What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be / The terrors of the earth,” I always wonder whether this is Lear or Shakespeare talking. I think the “terrors of the earth” is what Shakespeare does to Lear, not the other way around. The dramatist who can write successful tragedy is a scourge who calls down the terrors of the earth on unsuspecting protagonists.

In a conversation with Friedrich von Müller, German statesman, scientist, novelist, and dramatist Friedrich Johann Wolfgang von Goethe describes the tragic as the scenario which admits of no solution and no compensation. The loss must be terrible, absolute, and irrevocable. The second the tragedian offers any sort of compensation—a sort of victim’s services package—to the wounded protagonist, the tragic disappears.

Goethe himself could not rise to the occasion. At the last hour, Faust is saved. So too Egmont, though he dies, he finds compensation knowing that his death will incite the revolution that frees his people. As a result, he could not attain the heights the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the big two of Marlowe and Shakespeare reached. Goethe knew it too. He just couldn’t make himself do it. He didn’t have the heart. “The mere attempt to write tragedy,” he said in a letter to Schiller, “might be my undoing.”

In the last century, Arthur Miller was able to rise to the challenge in All My Sons. I am sure when Miller told his friends what he was working on, he wasn’t saying: “I drive a horrible man to commit suicide for killing twenty-one pilots,” but rather said, “I drive the best of fathers to suicide for doing what he thought was best for the ones he loved the most.” The former would have been too easy. The latter not many can pull off. The best sign you’re onto true tragedy is, when you tell your friends the plot, their eyebrows go up as in: “You’re kidding me, you did what to your protagonist?” For a more detailed look at All My Sons, click here.

One way to make it easier to inflict the terrors of the earth is to think of tragedy as a weighing mechanism. You put on one scalepan what the protagonist wants the most. In the case of Macbeth, it’s the crown. In the case of Joe Keller, it’s a business to hand down to his sons. In the case of Oedipus, it’s to raise the plague. On the opposing scalepan, you place what the protagonist must give up. In the case of Macbeth, it is compassion, or the milk of human kindness. In the case of Keller, it is his integrity. In the case of Oedipus, it is his precocious innocence.

Tragedy becomes terrible—and terrible is a good quality in tragedy—when both sides of the scale are heavy. Think of tragedy as a weighing mechanism for human ambitions and values. Characters must pay the price to obtain their wants. This idea of tragedy as a valuing mechanism I got from the economists and their idea of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the idea that, in choosing, there is a cost: one loses the next best alternative, the next best alternative is forsaken in selecting the best alternative. One cannot have cake and eat it too. One cannot have $10k cash and 25 shares of GameStop stock, one has either $10k cash or 25 shares of GameStop. When one chooses one or the other, the second choice is lost and, by choosing, one falls under the sway of a higher power, either towards reward or ruin. In risk theatre characters can have either a golden calf or a God.

How does this exercise help to unleash the tragic spirit? By looking at tragedy as a weighing mechanism, it becomes easier to inflict the terrors of the earth on unsuspecting heroes because, by looking at the exchange mechanically, you depersonalize the transaction. You’re not doing this to a nice person; you’re merely balancing accounting identities.

In economics, an accounting identity is just something that is simply true. The simplest one is probably: Assets = Liabilities + Equity. A tragic identity can be expressed similarly: Assets = Liabilities + Opportunity Cost with Assets being what the hero wants, Liabilities being the questionable things the hero has done along the way, and Opportunity Costbeing the good things the hero has given up along the way. By looking at the exchange though the eye of economics, you depersonalize the terrors of the earth. You become an economist, an accountant. It’s hard to lay Willy Loman off. He’s worked for you for a lifetime. He’s a person. But if you look at him mechanically, look at him like a businessperson, like an accountant or an economist, Willy’s just another line item. It’s easier to do to him the terrors of the earth. This is perhaps the hardest of the exercises. I don’t know if playwrights, so full of humanity, compassion, and the kindred spirit have what it takes to engage with the dark side of the force.

Economics is called the dismal science because it confronts the problem of scarcity. Tragedy too, is a world of shortages. There are too many kings and too few crowns. Tragedy is the dismal art. The dismal science and the dismal art: it is a match made in heaven. The opportunity cost concept in the economic sciences leads to tragic entanglement in the dramatic arts.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will, in 250 words, present the cost of opportunity. Take a character you’ve created, and frame the choice they must make in terms of opportunity cost. What do they want? Is it a crown, shares of GameStop, or a Broadway production? What are they willing to give up for what they want? Is it the milk of human kindness, integrity, or love? And what will trigger the character to have to pay? In All My Sons, Keller wants a good life for his sons. To get his sons the good life, he gives up his integrity. The trigger happens when he discovers that the twenty-one pilots who died because of him were, in a way, all his sons too.

In this exercise, you will find out if you have what it takes to do to your characters the unspeakable things that Miller did to Keller, that Shakespeare did to Lear, that Sophocles did to Oedipus. This, of all the exercises, is perhaps the hardest. Even Goethe was not up to task. It requires a rare and beautiful ruthlessness to cast your beautiful creations into the pit.

There you have it: seven playwriting exercises to help you put more risk, chance, and fire into your writing! Remember, when life gives you risk, build a theatre of risk. If you build it, they will come.

You can find me on Twitter, my handle is @TheoryOfTragedy. You can also find me on Facebook  at https://www.facebook.com/edwincharleswong and LinkedIn at https://linkedin.com/in/edwinclwong. The Risk Theatre Competition page is at https://risktheatre.com and you can also find competition updates on the Facebook “Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition” page. Don’t worry about taking notes, all the exercises will be posted on my blog at: https://melpomeneswork.com/workingtitleplaywrights/. Follow my blog, there’s always something new and interesting coming out. Go to https://melpomeneswork.com/ and enter your email under “Subscribe to Blog via Email.” Feel free to share the blog link with all the exercises with all your colleagues and ask your local library to make my book available, it is a terrific resource! If, down the road, you find these exercises have helped you, write me, I’d love to hear from you and I’m easy to find.

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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Playwrights explore chance in its many guises. To create a play, playwrights collide want, will, and intention with accident, chance, and fortune. In the no-man’s land between accident and intention, drama arises. Where accident intensifies the protagonist’s will, comedy results. Where accident eclipses the protagonist’s will, tragedy results. Chance is a playwright’s plaything because uncertainty, being unknown, is inherently dramatic.

In the tragedy Othello, Shakespeare explores chance by asking: “How high a degree of probability must one attain to have a sufficient basis for judgment?” Shakespeare sets the backdrop by crafting characters who are not what they seem. Their actions, reputations, and speech belie their being. When seeming and being are at odds, certainty goes out the window. Only the uncertain parts and probable fragments are left behind. In this world, there is no knowing, only thinking:

IAGO. My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO. I think thou dost. (3.3.119-20, emphasis added)

The play follows Othello as he pieces together broken probabilities, looking for the chance event so convincing that it rules out every doubt. He looks for a tattered proof known as moral certainty.

Je Est Un Autre or “I is Another”

Come on, come on, you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in . . .
Your beds! (2.1.109-13)

“Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none” (3.3.129-30). But that is not the case here. By cleaving apart seeming and being, Shakespeare creates a setting to explore chance. In Othello—to take poet Arthur Rimbaud’s memorable idea, Je est un autre (“I is another”)—each character is also “another.” Appearances deceive. When characters seem to be such, but are, in reality, another, understanding and certainty become best guesses. By cleaving seeming and being, Shakespeare takes the audience into a world of probability, a world where there is a chance of being correct and a chance of being incorrect. In this indeterminate world, characters weigh probabilities, form plans “probal to thinking” (2.3.333), and search for moral certainty, the probability that is so high that, even though uncertain, is called by the name of certainty. The tragedy is that even moral certainty is less than certain. Like bells in the parlours or men who might seem none, moral certainty only seems to be the real thing.

Iago seems honest. His epithet is “Honest Iago.” “Honest Iago,” says Othello, “My Desdemona I must leave to thee” (1.3.295-6). Roderigo entrusts him with his wealth and fastens each hope to him (1.3.363-80). Desdemona confides in him (3.4.133-41). “I never knew,” says Cassio, “A Florentine more kind and honest” (3.1.40-1). Iago’s seeming, however, belies his being. “I am not what I am,” he says, “but seeming so” (1.1.59 and 64).

Desdemona seems dishonest. “I do beguile,” she says, “The thing I am by seeming otherwise” (2.1.122-3). “Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see,” warns her father Brabantio, “She has deceived her father, and may thee” (1.3.293-4). “Swear thou art honest,” demands Othello, “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell” (4.2.39-40). Her seeming, however, belies her being. She is a true heart.

Emilia seems bawdy. “She’s a simple bawd,” says Othello (4.2.20). In between Cassio’s kiss and his suspicions of her infidelity, Iago remarks her services are for the common use:

EMILIA. I have a thing for you.

IAGO. You have a thing for me? it is a common thing—

EMILIA. Ha? (3.3.305-7)

Though seen as a bawd who would sell great vice for a small price, she ends up buying virtue at the cost of her own life, at the last standing between Iago’s maleficence, Othello’s rage, and Desdemona’s helplessness, exposing the wickedness of both her husband and Othello. Not even Othello’s sword can silence her virtue:

EMILIA. Thou hast done a deed [He threatens her with his sword.]
—I care not for thy sword, I’ll make thee known
Though I lost twenty lives. Help, help, ho, help! (5.2.160-2)

Her surface appearances belie her core values. By judging her by her surface appearances, Iago, who knew her best, seals his doom.

Othello seems a man for all seasons. The assembled Venetian senate regales him as “all-in-all sufficient,” “a nature whom passion could not shake,” and one whose virtue lay beyond “the shot of accident” (4.1.264-8). He is of such steadfast repute that, when Emilia inquires whether he is jealous, Desdemona replies: “Who, he? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him” (3.4.30-1). His seeming, however, belies his being. In reality, he proves insufficient, full of passion, and most susceptible to accident and chance.

So too, in the play’s macrocosm, the invading Turkish fleet seems sometimes smaller, sometimes larger. And, whether larger or smaller, sometimes it seems to bend for Rhodes, and sometimes for Cyprus. Its size and trajectory belie its intentions (1.3.1-45). Though the senate would rather act on certain, rather than probable intelligence, because the enemy projects a false gaze more full of seeming than being, the senate must act on probabilities. So too, Othello, Roderigo, Desdemona, and the other characters looking on at the grand pageant must hazard the probability of being caught on the wrong side of seeming and being.

In this play populated by topsy-turvy Je est un autre types, Iago presses the confusion forwards. Iago is an obsequious go-getter. His primary weapon is dissimulation. To enrichen himself, he plays panderer to Roderigo, though he panders nothing. To rise up the chain of command, he devises a way to cashier Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant. He will persuade Othello that Cassio cuckolds him. To this end, he employs a series of strategies. When convenient, he spreads rumours that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, Othello’s younger wife. He starts with Roderigo:

IAGO. Lechery, by this hand: an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts. They met so near with their lips that their breaths embraced together. Villainous thoughts, Roderigo: when these mutualities so marshal the way, hard at hand comes the master and main exercise, th’incorporate conclusion. (2.1.255-61)

and then moves to Othello:

IAGO. I lay with Cassio lately
And being troubled with a raging tooth
I could not sleep. There are a kind of men
So loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter
Their affairs—one of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves,’
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o’er my thigh,
And sigh, and kiss, and then cry ‘Cursed fate
That gave thee to the Moor!’ (3.3.416-28)

If there is a kernel of truth Iago can explode into reckless speculation, he will do so:

IAGO. She did deceive her father, marrying you,
And when she seemed to shake, and fear your looks,
She loved them most.

OTHELLO.                     And so she did.

IAGO.                                                   Why, go to, then:
She that so young could give out such a seeming
To seel her father’s eyes up, close as oak—
He thought ‘twas witchcraft. But I am much to blame,
I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
For too much loving you.

OTHELLO. I am bound to thee for ever. (3.3.209-17)

When all else fails, Iago practices psychological warfare. Through insinuation, he gets Othello to convince himself. Conclusions drawn when one convinces oneself root more firmly than persuaded proofs:

IAGO. Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady,
Know of your love?

OTHELLO.                    He did, from first to last.
Why dost thou ask?

IAGO. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm.

OTHELLO.        Why of thy thought, Iago?

IAGO. I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

OTHELLO. O, yes, and went between us very oft.

IAGO. Indeed?

OTHELLO. Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?

IAGO. Honest, my lord?

OTHELLO. Honest? Ay, honest.

IAGO. My lord, for aught I know.
What dost thou think?

IAGO. Think, my lord?

OTHELLO. Think, my lord! By heaven thou echo’st me
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown. (3.3.94-111)

Despite the rumours, speculations, and insinuations, Othello sees, or believes he sees, Desdemona’s true heart:

OTHELLO. What sense had I of her stolen hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me,
I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips. (3.3.341-4)

Beginning to suspect foul play, he retains enough good sense to demand proof from Iago, telling Iago to provide proof, or his life:

OTHELLO. Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof, [Catching hold of him]
Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath! (3.3.362-6)

Nothing improper has transpired, and, as a result, Iago has no proof, cannot come up with a proof. He reaches an aporia. But, in a twist of fate, chance provides Iago proof.

A Handkerchief, Spotted with Strawberries

Desdemona has on her person a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. It is of an unusual provenance. Artifact like, it was sewn by an ancient sibyl during moments of inspiration. Hallowed worms spun its threads and maiden’s hearts stained its cloth. It was given to Othello’s mother to charm his father, and damnation to her if she lost it. She, however, saw it in her safekeeping until she died, at which time she gave it to her son. He, in turn, gave the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries to Desdemona (3.4.57-77).

Halfway through the play, Desdemona takes out the kerchief to wrap Othello’s head. He has a headache. It falls off. In their haste to meet dinner guests, they forget the napkin. Emilia, having been asked by her husband many times to steal it, chances upon it. She gives it to Iago, unaware of why he should want it (3.3.288-332). Through the accident of the dropped napkin, Iago has an opportunity to bolster his flagging argument.

Once he has the handkerchief, Iago can produce the wicked proofs required by Othello. He begins by planting the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom. Next, he tells Othello he has seen Cassio wiping his beard with it. This, in turn, prompts Othello to ask Desdemona for the napkin. She cannot produce it, and, fatally misjudging the gravity of the situation, asks Othello to reinstate Cassio. This drives Othello into a huff, who finds it incredulous that Desdemona not only has the appetite for another man, but also has the appetite to demand from him his favour.

At this point, Othello is getting a bit run down. His epileptic attack as he visualizes the intertwined lovers is a physical analogue of his broken internal state. Even now, however, standing in his mellow-fading glory like a black Caesar, he demands proofs. As he recovers from the epileptic attack, Iago provides verbal and ocular proofs, one by cunning, and the other by another stroke of chance.

Iago arranges for Othello to overhear his conversation with Cassio. While getting Othello to believe he is questioning Cassio about Desdemona, he actually asks Cassio about Bianca, a strumpet overfond of Cassio. In hearing Cassio tell Iago of his extracurricular activities with Bianca, Othello believes Cassio refers to Desdemona. Then, in a second twist, as Othello eavesdrops, Bianca comes out of nowhere to rebuke Cassio. Cassio had found the handkerchief in his chamber, and, appreciating the design, had asked Bianca to make a copy. Bianca agreed, but, on second thought, believing the handkerchief to be a gift from a rival, now finds it beneath her dignity to do any such thing. That Bianca appears at this moment surprises Iago, who had planned many things, but not this godsend. When she rebukes Cassio, Othello draws the conclusion that, first of all, Desdemona was in Cassio’s chamber, and, second of all, Desdemona has given Cassio the handkerchief as a token of her affection. Though Bianca does not mention Desdemona, it is a short leap for Othello, a general accustomed to making snap judgements on the field of battle, to conclude that Cassio’s hobby-horse is none other than Desdemona:

BIANCA. Let the devil and his dam haunt you! What did you mean by that same handkerchief you gave me even now? I was a fine fool to take it—I must take out the work! A likely piece of work, that you should find it in your chamber and know not who left it there! This is some minx’s token, and I must take out the work? There, give it your hobby-horse; wheresoever you had it, I’ll take out no work on’t!

CASSIO. How now, my sweet Bianca, how now, how now?

OTHELLO. By heaven, that should be my handkerchief! (4.1.147-56)

Who else but Desdemona could have left the napkin there? The scene with Bianca and Cassio convinces Othello. He resolves to kill them both. He has proof. Or so he thinks.

If Emilia had—as Iago requested—stolen the napkin, the tragedy would have taken on a more ominous tone: the sound of good and evil clashing. But that is not what happens. The sound of good and evil clashing is dull. Emilia, rather, finds the napkin by chance. Chance is more interesting. That she finds it by chance leaves the audience with a sense of wonder and awe: wonder at how impartial chance should have become Iago’s partisan and awe over the extraordinary consequences that follow.

At one moment chance saves, sending a storm to drown the Turkish fleet. But in the next moment, chance casts down, putting the napkin into the wrong hands. Chance’s fantastic nature makes it a wonderful dramatic pivot. Othello himself, a crack storyteller, engages chance to woo Desdemona by telling her the stories of “battles, sieges, fortunes,” “most disastrous chances,” and of “moving accidents by flood and field” (1.3.131-6). These accidents he lives to tell, but the tale of the dropped napkin another will tell.

Chance fascinates because every eventuality lays within its grasp, given enough time. But even given its myriad combinations and permutations, some eventualities are more probable, some, less so, and others implausible unto impossible. This feature of chance—that some probabilities are more likely and others less so—allows Othello to draw fatal proofs.

Five Sigma Events, Significance Tests, Moral Certainty, and Iago’s Gambit

In the character Othello, Shakespeare has created a sceptic to rival Sextus Empiricus. For Othello, it was not enough that Iago was the most honest of Venetians. Nor was it enough that Iago had stood shoulder to shoulder with him, comrades-in-arms on the front lines. It was not even enough that Desdemona’s own father warned him to be wary. Othello, after all, had heard the wise Duke rebuking Brabantio for acting on circumstantial evidence:

DUKE. To vouch this is no proof,
Without more certain and more overt test
Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods
Of modern seeming do prefer against him. (1.3.107-10)

Othello will not be a brash Brabantio. He will demand a certain and more overt test:

OTHELLO. Make me to see’t, or at the least so prove it
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life! (3.3.367-9)

Now Iago is in a jam. Othello demands proof, or his life. Iago cannot make Othello see it, as there is nothing to see. Othello himself, likewise, is in a jam. He must judge a covert crime, and, having judged, kill. He can count on neither Desdemona nor Cassio to fess up: unchaste eyes must never name the things unchaste hearts cannot do without. When Iago proposes the test of the napkin, however, Othello has a path forward:

IAGO. But if I give my wife a handkerchief—

OTHELLO. What then?

IAGO. Why, then ’tis hers, my lord, and being hers
She may, I think, bestow’t on any man.

OTHELLO. She is protectress of her honour too:
May she give that ? (4.1.10-5)

In Iago’s gambit, the napkin will stand in for her honour. Since Desdemona is honourable, the likelihood that she gives away the token of her honour is low. Because it would be an outlier event to see the napkin in the hands of another man, if it is seen, the likelihood is high that the observation is significant. The test of the napkin—coupled with both Iago and Brabantio’s warnings—may constitute, therefore, a sort of proof that, while not absolute, demonstrates infidelity beyond a reasonable doubt. This probabilistic proof that “the probation bear no hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on” is the best proof available in the indeterminate world of the play. The idea that random chance may—or may not—engender absolute truth is the powerful idea Shakespeare plays with.

Though it was not until 1668 that philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz formally associated probability with certainty by arguing that, given a sufficient probability, a degree of moral certainty could be achieved, it is clear that Shakespeare was already thinking along these lines in the opening years of the seventeenth century. Probability is in the air. Mathematician Jacob Bernoulli in the late seventeenth century would quantify these thresholds: something possessing 1/1000 a fraction of certainty (0.1%) would be morally impossible, whereas something possessing 999/1000 a portion of certainty (99.9%) would be morally certainty. The standard is flexible. Modern statisticians use anywhere from one to five percent significance tests to establish certainty. Different fields likewise require different levels of certainty. When physicists used a sensitivity of three sigma to validate discoveries (corresponding to a 99.7% chance that the result is real and not by the action of chance), they found that, because their work involved a multitude of data points, they would arrive at many discoveries which would be later proved spurious. Accordingly, when searching for the Higgs boson, they adapted a five sigma threshold. This threshold translates to a 99.99994% confidence level: the chance that the discovery is an anomaly is roughly 1 in 3.5 million. Even with a five sigma sensitivity, however, the chance that the observation is a fluke and not the real thing remains. Moral certainty is a subjective and pragmatic standard. Too low a threshold results in false discoveries and too high a threshold results in no discoveries. The question is: does Othello achieve moral certainty and, if so, to what degree?

The first great critic of Othello, Thomas Rymer, found the proof of the handkerchief so implausible as to be risible. To Rymer, Othello was acting without any kind of certainty, let alone moral certainty. In 1693, he voiced his misgivings in a jingling couplet: “Before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Everyone knows that Michael Cassio is the great arithmetician of the play, not Othello. Perhaps Othello had miscalculated the odds?

What Iago wants is for Othello to assemble all the information—the warning from Brabantio, the accusations from Iago, Cassio’s frequent associations with Desdemona, Desdemona’s importuning, and so on—so that the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs” (3.3.444, emphasis added). Probability theory in the time of Shakespeare and Rymer was in its infancy. That is not to say, however, that Othello could not intuit conditional odds: that is, in effect, what he does. So too, without formal probability theory, Iago well knows that many less plausible proofs may add up into one great proof, saying: “This may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly” (3.3.432-3).

The formal calculation of conditional probabilities lay in the future. That future arrived in 1763 when Bayes’ theorem was posthumously published. Thomas Bayes was a mathematician and Presbyterian minister. His contribution to probability theory was a formula to calculate conditional probabilities, a way to revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Iago’s hypothesis that many lesser proofs constitute one great proof. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Rymer’s couplet, to see whether Othello’s proof be mathematical, and, if so, to what extent.

To determine the posterior probability—that is to say, the revised probability that Othello has been cuckolded after the test of the napkin—we require four probability values. The first two values are P(C), the initial or prior probability that he has been cuckolded, and P(~C), the initial or prior probability that he has not been cuckolded. Before Iago’s gambit, Othello’s opinion on whether he has been cuckolded appears evenly divided:

OTHELLO. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [Iago] art just, and think thou art not. (3.386-8)

Given what he says, we can assign a value of 0.50 (with 0 representing an impossibility and 1 representing a certainty) to P(C)and a similar value, 0.50, to P(~C). The odds he has been cuckolded are 50:50.

The third probability value is P(H C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue suggests Othello believes that, next to catching the lovers in the act, the test of the handkerchief is a great proof. The value of P(H C), while not 1 (which is an absolute certainty), must approach 1: perhaps 0.90, representing a 90% chance, is reasonable.

The final probability value is P(H ∣ ~C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests true hearts give away telltale tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. As a result, the likelihood of P(H ∣ ~C) is quite low, having an order of magnitude of 0.01, or a 1% chance.

Here is what Bayes’ theorem looks like when solving for P(C H) or the posterior probability that Othello is a cuckold, should he see his napkin with Cassio. The formula takes into account his initial, or prior belief, and revises it to take into account the test of the napkin:

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

Othello can be now 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. While this falls short of the five sigma standard (99.99994%) used in high energy physics, its significance falls within the one to five percent tests used by modern statisticians. The napkin brings him to a point of moral certainty, the degree of probability one must attain to act. The jealousy was tragical because the proof was mathematical.

Is Othello correct to believe that he has caught the lovers in his mousetrap? That, I think, is the question Shakespeare invites us to ask. The answer—like many answers in the great plays—is fluid. Some may argue that P(H ∣ ~C)—the odds that Desdemona gives away the napkin and is true—is too low at 1%. People with the truest hearts, may, some of the time, give away treasured tokens as though trifles. Changing P(H ∣ ~C) from 0.01 to 0.10 (from 1% to 10%) would decrease Othello’s confidence level from 98.9% to 90%. There is now a 10% probability that what he sees is a pageant of chance rather than a proof of infidelity. Others, however, would argue that starting from a 50% prior probability of being a cuckold is egregiously low. Given the constant goings-on between Cassio and Desdemona as well as warnings from both Desdemona’s father himself and the most honest person in the room, Othello’s initial belief, or the prior probability P(C), that he has been cuckolded should be much higher, perhaps closer to 80%. Now, even with P(H ∣ ~C) at 0.10, Othello can still be 97.3% certain he is a cuckold. If P(H ∣ ~C) stays at the original 0.01 and the prior probability Othello is cuckold rises from 50% to 80%, the posterior probability of being a cuckold after a positive napkin test rises to a confidence-inspiring 99.7%, equivalent to the three sigma threshold used by physicists until rather recently.

By cleaving seeming and being in twain, Shakespeare invites the audience to explore probability and its ramifications. Would different ages, ethnicities, and sexes input different values into Bayes’ theorem? How high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty must also contend that, in the final examination, he was wrong. Those who contend Othello failed to achieve moral certainty would do well to wonder how yesterday and today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matters of life and death on less stringent significance tests. Othello makes us wonder: should graver actions demand higher levels of certainty? Not only that, it also makes us wonder if our interpretations of Othello reveal something about ourselves. Do we allow Othello to judge after receiving a tip from an honest source and catching the culprit in the mousetrap? And would these same people who say no to Othello allow Hamlet to judge after receiving a tip from a possibly dishonest (and diabolical) source and catching the culprit in another sort of a mousetrap?

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is the one of the richest crossroads in interpretation today. Through a twist of chance, Shakespeare takes Othello from good to great: since chance is indeterminate, interpreters of the play will forever debate whether Othello achieves moral certainty, and to what degree. Othello makes us think on the role of chance in theatre and in life.

Whether Heads of Tails, Chance always Prevails

In this essay, I have argued that chance and probability form a basis of interpretation. In Othello, Shakespeare represents chance in the form of a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. The action pivots around the errant handkerchief because its journey gives Othello the proof that Iago could not provide. Chance supplies the proof because it is made up of probabilities, some common, some uncommon, and others so uncommon as to stand outside the prospect of belief. For Othello, it stood outside the prospect of belief that the handkerchief could have went from Desdemona, to Cassio, and then to Bianca, unless Desdemona were untrue. To Othello, Iago’s extraordinary claim required extraordinary evidence, and, through chance, he witnessed an extraordinary proof. Whether or not this proof achieves a point of moral certainty, however, will be a point of debate forever, as chance is, in the last examination, subject to uncertainty. Othello, read through the lens of chance, makes for great reading for pollsters, jurors, insurers, high energy physicists, ethicists, medical researchers, and anyone else corroborating theories based on many observations: there is always a risk that what appears certain is only a statistical anomaly that has the seeming of truth.

From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk. And what better for today’s days of risk than to look at tragedy as a theatre of risk? When life gives you lemons, make all of theatre a theatre of risk and you will see not only the play, but all of life, through new eyes. “O vain boast, / Who can control his fate? ’Tis not so now,” says the one who has seen the power of chance in all its guises, sometimes raising up, and other times casting down (Othello 5.2.262-3).

In Othello, Shakespeare has drawn a moving portrait of the empire of chance in its limitless power. When want, will, and intention collide with accident, chance, and fortune, no matter how strong want, will, and intention are and how unlikely accident, chance, and fortune were, chance finds a way. Some thought that the gods were fate. Others thought that politics or character was fate. But, really, chance is the rebel fate. Certain proof of this lies in the great mystery of tragedy, the mystery of how, whether heads or tails, chance always prevails.

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If you have enjoyed this reading of Othello, here is a link to a reading of Macbeth from the perspective of chance. Those interested in the role of chance in ancient drama may want to click here. These “risk theatre” readings are derived from arguments in my book presenting a new theory of tragedy: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Ask your local library to carry a copy! Risk theatre is more than theory. It is also the basis of the largest playwriting competition in the world for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year. The competition brings together playwrights, writers, dramaturgs, directors, actors, and audiences to explore the many guises of chance and uncertainty. Click here for more info on the competition. Thank you for reading.

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work
sine memoria nihil