Sunday, February 27, 2011

Salacious Slanders and Slurs

Iago would have totally loved the Web. Imagine his Twitter feed:

"Slutty Desdemona sleeping w/ Cassio. Surprised. Thought he was gay."
"@ VenetianCitizens: Othello's a Muslim terrorist pretending 2 be Christian."
"@ PapaBrabantio: Heads up. black ram tupping yr white ewe."
"@Othellothemoor: Trophy wives can't be trusted. ru missing a handkerchief?"

What he would have loved most about it, of course, is the anonymity. The fact that he could say anything, no matter how malicious and/or mendacious, with impunity.  He'd like Google rankings even more. Because if he were a particularly savvy Web user--and I'm certain he would be--he'd make sure his slurs made it into the top five search results. Right there under "Othello saves Venice from Infidels Yet Again" would be "Othello's Wife Gives Treasured Keepsake to Boy Toy Cassio," and "Jealous Othello Can't Be Trusted with Venetian Security." Yep, he would have totally grooved on the reputation-wrecking potential of the Internet.

But of course there's a flaw in this scenario. People don't care about reputation the way they once did. The whole idea of a public reputation depends on the existence of a "public sphere" which is clearly distinguishable from the private sphere. And as we all know, that's no longer the case. People reveal the intimate details of their private lives online all the time, eager for comments. They send nude pictures of themselves to virtual strangers. They feel free to give advice to people they've never met, and never will. They have 500 Facebook friends, but don't really know more than a handful of them. These days, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

In fact, reputation only matters if you're a business, a job candidate, or a high school student who wants to get into the Ivies. A libelous review means lost money for business--that's why there are corporate lawyers. And probably you don't want to be posting racy or drunken pics of yourself if you dream of someday being a Supreme Court Justice. But for the rest of today's technologically-immured folks, all the windows and doors are open. In a world of seven billion people, everyone wants to be noticed. Everyone has a fascinating personal story to tell. Everyone thinks his or her own life is Important--and if it's not, well, there's nothing wrong with embellishing the facts to make it so. Check out this short list of some of the most (in)famous fake memoirs of the last century.

Hmm. Now that I think about it, maybe I should just junk this blog and write a fake autobiography myself. It has to have sex, violence, and lots of taboo-smashing details. I'm thinking sexual slavery, rural militias, and maybe cannibalism.

See, you're already interested!

But seriously. You can't understand this play--or a whole lot of early literature, for that matter--if you don't understand the literary/historical importance of reputation.  Reputation, or public honor, was a particularly male virtue--in fact that's redundant, since virtue is based on the Latin vir, or "man."  To be virtuous, in other words, was to be a man.  A public man. Virtuous men nurtured their public reputations, their resume of manly deeds, by keeping the dangerously feminine world of private life far, far away. Sex is important for recreation, or for carrying on one's name, but it should never be an end itself. And love is dangerous--Othello himself realizes it from the beginning of the play:

But that I love the gentle Desdemona
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the seas' worth.

If I didn't love Desdemona so much, I wouldn't allow myself to be imprisoned, incarcerated, confined to indoors. Not for all the tea in China. Or rather, for all the water in the ocean. Marriage doesn't sound so good when you put it that way, does it? But it's significant he mentions his "unhoused free condition."  Male reputations are put at risk by domestic confinement. In Antony and Cleopatra, a play with similar concerns (more on that in a minute) one of Antony's lieutenants complains that his besotted general "will make no wars out of doors."  He won't leave Cleo's bedroom to do his manly (martial) duty. Women are "housed"; men are supposed to live in the greater world of manly deeds.  This is a pretty ubiquitous idea in the West. Take a look at these early American portraits of a husband and wife:

If you look out those two windows, you'll see that her world is confined and circumscribed--literally fenced in. His is much bigger, undomesticated. He can leave the house and travel as far as he wants, into the distance. She can only get to the fence--then she has to turn back. My point here is that Othello's fear of being housebound isn't something Will just came up with. It's a transhistorical male fear of being fenced in, limited to a woman's sphere of influence. Notice that the husband is writing--sending his words out into the world. The wife has a book--no doubt written by a man--but she's giving her full attention to the painter. The husband's active, even in repose. She's utterly passive. Imagine how different--okay, how wrong--these portraits would look of the seating were reversed, and the wife were writing to someone while the husband gazed vacantly at the viewer. Something wrong in that marriage, for sure.

So it's pretty clear from the beginning of Othello that danger is lurking on the horizon. Othello isn't exactly embracing the idea of marriage--he loves Desdemona, sure, but he's got a ton of reservations about the whole thing. He's probably read his Virgil and his Homer, and knows that warriors--men of action--run a big risk when they enter the indoor feminine realm, where words, rather than deeds, predominate. Once you get trapped in the wordy indoor world, your reputation is pretty much doomed. Because words are slippery, and equivocal, and just plain tricky. You can't slice through them with a sword, or shoot them. They circulate on their own, in the form of rumors and half-truths. They can trap you as surely as a prison door, and there's no getting out with your honor intact.

The question of reputation in Will's plays takes its cue from the earlier epic tradition, wherein male reputations were built on a warrior ethos--a tribal celebration of valorous acts worthy of being remembered. Specifically, remembered in poetry, song, or, later on, in writing. Those are the only kind of words a valiant warrior is interested in--the kind that celebrate his valiant, warlike deeds. To lose one's reputation meant being obliterated in the etymological sense--that is, being erased from literature/history (the epic world didn't make a distinction). There are several ways to be obliterated from manly military history. You can be a coward, of course. That's the obvious one. Or you can go indoors and never come out. In the plays, as in much of earlier literature, losing one's martial reputation often resulted from a Dangerous Encounter with The Private Life. Usually, of course, this means a dangerous, reputation-ruining run-in with Woman and Sexuality.

I wrote about this in a previous post, back when I was blogging Romeo and Juliet. I'm not going to repeat all the things I wrote there--but you can check it out if you've a mind to.

Will's most famous example of this tragic scenario is Othello--followed closely by Antony and Cleopatra. The latter is a more straightforward example of the "ruined-by-eros" structure, in that Antony allows his own lust to overwhelm his sense of duty. He says it himself, near the end of the play:

I have offended reputation,
A most unnoble swerving.

Swerving. Interesting choice of words. As if he's just junked his macho itinerary and swerved off course. Maybe stopped at a sleazy motel or truck stop on the Moral Highway to Enduring Fame.  And once you swerve that far off course, it's hard to get back on the road.

What happens to Othello is a little different, but still structurally similar. He's a military hero to the Venetians, a bulwark against the Turkish threat. But he's also racially and culturally other--more a man of the East than the West. Keeping on that straight and narrow road to Fame and Lasting Honor is even more important--because he already looks like the "easily swerving" type. So he builds and maintains his reputation carefully. He's confident that his deeds will speak louder than any slanderous words. Early in the play he tells Iago that he's not worried about Roderigo's slurs or Brabantio's objections to his marriage. His military heroism will protect him. Let Brabantio "do his spite," he says:

My services which I have done the signory
Shall out-tongue his complaints.

Actions, he insists, speak louder than words. But once he's stuck on Cyprus with no wars to fight, he's trapped in the realm of words, not deeds. And in the wordy arena, he's way out of his league. Iago literally talks him to death.

Words, words words. They're the key to this whole play. Desdemona falls in love with Othello because of his stories. Iago tells another story, of Desdemona's perfidy. Desdemona has a lot to say at the beginning of the play, but Iago's story proves more compelling, and she grows quieter and quieter until finally her very breath is stolen as she lies on her marriage bed. She dies by smothering--a final silencing. Othello, for his part, doesn't understand the importance of words until the end. "Speak of me as I am," he says. Tell the truth about me. Pity he didn't believe Desdemona when she tried to do the same. Instead, he allowed Iago to name her whore, and refused to listen when she tried to tell him who she really was. "Speak of me as I am." Don't lie about me. And yet he lies to himself, even in his final moments, claiming to be "one that loved not wisely but too well."

The abuser, the wife-beater, the uxoricide--if you ask them why they beat, maim, and kill the women in their lives, chances are more than half would offer Othello's excuse. "I just loved her too much."

No, I'm not forgetting that Othello's a victim here, too. And a lot of what I have to say here will be about that. But Desdemona is too often silenced, her story smothered, by the readers of this play. I'm not going to do that.

Well, I meant to really get into Act 1 today. I guess I swerved off course. Next time, back on the straight and narrow, I promise.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Paint It Black

Othello is an odd play, an "extravagant and wheeling stranger" among the kings, queens, and princes that populate other Shakespearean tragedies. Othello is a noble man, but not a true nobleman. He has risen to a position of power on his own merits--a rarity throughout most of history (and arguably still a rarity today). He's a warrior who doesn't get to fight anyone or anything except his own demons. Desdemona (notice the "demon" embedded in her name) is, like Juliet, a sheltered aristocratic girl who dares to love someone inappropriate. As in Romeo and Juliet, the events of the play happen in only a few days. But even more than R & J, Othello is private tragedy. The fate of nations, of cities, or even of great families, does not rest on its outcome. After the dead are buried, the Venetians will presumably find someone else to fight the Turks, and life will go on. In this sense, it's more a story for our time than Will's.

So what's this play about?  These days, it's about race. Back in Will's day, however, Othello was about difference of all kinds--cultural, sexual, social, philosophical.  Why didn't I include "racial" in that list? Because I really don't think that the racial angle played the same way to an early modern audience. Othello is black, by his own admission--but like gender, race was just a theatrical construct on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage. There were no black, or even brown actors to play Othello. They wore makeup. Or maybe they just wore a turban and some colorful robes. Othello, like the "women" on the stage, "is not what he is." He's just an actor, painted black.

So why make him a Moor at all? Could he not just as easily have been a Jew, like Shylock, or an Egyptian, like Cleopatra? Perhaps a bastard, like Edmund--there are number of ways Will could have told this story of a man who marries above his station, who's an outsider, who is ruined because he doubts himself and mistrusts anyone who loves him. The fact that Will chose to tell this story at all--a story so unlike others that lured him, is interesting. His source was a mid-sixteenth-century Italian story by Giovanni Battista Giraldi, a minor writer in the tradition of Boccaccio.  Biographical aside: Giraldi clearly understood the importance of image, since he took a nom de plume: Giraldi Cinthio.  This name doubtless sounded more poetic to sixteenth-century Italians than Giovanni Giraldi, which was like being called "John Jones" back then. Anyway, Cinthio wrote a short story called "Un Capitano Moro" ("A Moorish Captain") as part of his collection of tales, Gli Hecatommithi.  In Cinthio's version, Iago decides to ruin Othello because of his own unrequited passion for Desdemona. In Will's redaction, Iago has no passion for anything but moral mayhem--instead of an angry suitor, he's the Lord of the Flies. A pretty big change. 

But I digress. Why does Othello have to be black, African, Moorish--i.e., foreign and dark-skinned? Because his blackness works as a metaphor for the problem of perception in general. And to see him on the stage, his black face surrounded by all those pale English ones, is visually arresting. Disturbing. The audience is drawn to his face, and to Iago's words. We see Othello, but we listen to Iago. This disconnect between the body and the word, between seeing and hearing, is central to the play. It's like having the devil whisper in your ear for the entire performance, even as your eyes are drawn elsewhere.

The play is less interested in race per se than in the disjunction between what seems and what is. How things appear, and how they really are. Othello is dark, but the Duke tells Brabantio that his "son-in-law is more fair than black," by virtue of his service to the state. Othello calls Iago "honest," even up to the moment his betrayal is revealed. Appearance is taken for essence, surface for substance, throughout--Othello even insists, in his despair, that he'd rather Desdemona slept with hundreds of men, if only he hadn't known about it.  He demands "ocular proof" from Iago of her perfidy, then falls for a cheap trick with a handkerchief. A magician's sleight of hand, as it were.

Given the play's obsession with appearance and deception, having a white actor portray Othello in blackface is actually thematically appropriate. It works with the language and the structure of the drama. But that's not an option any longer--race can't be seen as a theatrical construct these days. In this era, and especially in this country, with its tragic legacy of slavery and racially-motivated injustice, blackface looks too much like mockery. Like stealing something one hasn't a right to. Olivier's blackface Othello seems like the worst kind of usurpation now.

Even if we accept that the play wants us to see Othello's skin color as superficial, dramatizing it that way still raises the whole uncomfortable issue of "blackness" as a synonym for evil in the European tradition. You know, the Dark Side. Othello looks black (read: evil) but he's really "fair." Iago looks fair (white) but he's really black inside. Desdemona looks fair to Othello, but he fears she's really a black-hearted whore. A whited sepulchre.

In the Middle Ages, devils were regularly portrayed as black. And sometimes with a woman's face, too.  Blackness and femininity were linked in Christian mythology--often with the caveat that a fair feminine face hides a devilish interior. Black was not beautiful--remember in The Merchant of Venice, Portia breathes a sigh of relief when her Moroccan suitor chooses the wrong casket. "A gentle riddance," she says with naive bigotry, "let all of his complexion choose me so."

Even dark-haired women were thought to be less beautiful than fair ones--a fair woman with a plain face was prized above a prettier dark one. Blondes, as the old hair color commercial promised, invariably had more fun. Of course there was more at issue than just aesthetic preferences. Darkness was--still is--associated with ignorance, superstition, death. All bad stuff.  It's all over our language. "I see," we say when we understand. "Enlighten me." "His lecture really illuminated things." In Will's day these associations were even stronger, because they hadn't disappeared into the language, as they have now.  What I mean is, early modern people noticed words like that in ways we no longer do. We've got light whenever we want it now, but if you lived in pre-modern Europe, the night was pretty damned dark.  Who knew what lived in the woods at night? You sure didn't want to go in there to find out. It was easy to see--I mean understand--why many people believed in witches and other supernatural beings. It was simply too dark for widespread enlightenment.

We saw how important the light/dark opposition was in Romeo and Juliet. It's equally important here, albeit in a different, more conventional way. In R & J, night was the time when the fakery and facades of the daylight hours fell away, leaving only the "truth" of erotic intimacy. In Othello, nighttime maintains its more traditional association with ignorance, deception, and occulted motives. The play begins in darkness, with Iago and Roderigo whispering slanderous, salacious lies to Brabantio. Roderigo reveals himself as Desdemona's spurned suitor, but Iago remains hidden in the darkness, the unseen "first mover" of the tragedy to come.

Next:  Iago's Twitter feed.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Story of O

Probably you've never read the original Story of O, a work of "literary pornography" (that phrase may or may not be an oxymoron) written by some pseudonymous Frenchwoman in the 1950's. At least I think it was the 50's.  Don't run out and get a copy, unless you're, you know, into that sort of thing. It's about a young woman's kinky S/M adventures, which are described in disturbing, quasi-poetic (hence the "literary" label) detail. My teenage self was shocked and, of course, fascinated by all this transgressive behavior. To this day it's still the naughtiest thing I've ever read.

It has nothing to do with Othello, except in one sense: the letter O.  O is a letter, but also a number--zero.  The heroine/victim of the novel is called O, because she wants to be erased, to have her will--her entire self--obliterated through some sort of transcendent submission. It's kind of religious, really, except for the sex. I mean, saints and mystics all wanted that too--to transcend desire. To submit utterly to the will of another. Everyone wants a god--but some people want one right here and now. That's what masochism--sexual or political--is all about. O wants not to want. To have no self. To become, ontologically speaking, a zero. That, according to the author, is the mystical end/goal of all submission: to be emptied out by another.

Now Othello isn't a masochist in this sense--but Will was very aware of the O-zero connection. Othello, like that other tragic Shakespearean O, Ophelia, allows someone else to write his story. He's emptied out by another, by a bad guy who understands exactly where his weaknesses are. But Iago, too, is an empty sort. He says it himself: "I am not what I am." This can be understood both psychologically and ontologically--"I am not what I seem," but also, "I have no essence."

It's Hegelian, really. Both the Master and the Slave are empty without the other. A zero-sum game.

Iago's motives for destroying Othello--his stated motives--seem woefully insufficient. He offers two: one public--he was passed over for promotion--and one private--he feared Othello had seduced his wife. Now Othello is far too straight-arrow to ever be an adulterer. That's clear way back in Act 1. He won't even admit he desires his own wife, much less anyone else's. So neither motive is sufficient to explain Iago's actions. Samuel Coleridge famously referred to Iago's "motiveless malignity," which sums it up pretty well. He simply acts, for no reason, creating a tragedy out of nothing.

His name, Iago, is the Spanish form of James, recognizable in the city "Santiago,"--Saint James. But it's worth remembering that "ago" is also Latin for "I act." I-ago. I act. I make things happen. Never mind why.

I guess what I'm getting at here is that Othello is in many ways Will's most modern play--it's obsessed with "image," with racial and sexual difference--but on a deeper level it's just profoundly nihilistic. No one has an essence, really. Othello, philosophically speaking, is not what it is.

Cryptic enough?  Well, I'll explain what I mean when I really get into the play, in the next few posts. Today I need to say a few words about that other O.  Yes, I mean Barack Obama, our first African-American president. The subject of a recent, thinly-disguised political roman a clef called--you guessed it--O.  What does Obama have to do with Othello, besides the O thing? More than nothing, when you think about it. Obama, like Othello, is a charismatic outsider who ascended to a position hitherto closed to people of his race.

And, okay, that's where the obvious similarities end. Obama is unlikely to be seduced into uxoricide. He's unlikely to even lose his temper in public. But like Othello, our president seems to inspire a fair amount of motiveless malignity. And a lot of people on both sides of the political divide would love to see him lose his cool. Even just for a minute. There's a recent book by a conservative commentator called The Roots of Obama's Rage, which I find interesting. Now I confess I haven't read this book--the title sounded too, well, enraged for me. But really, that title says it all. I mean, what rage are we talking about here? The guy never breaks a sweat. Mostly Obama enrages other people, simply by not being enraged, or outraged, or passionate, or anything but cool and controlled. But this book seems more than anything to want people to think of him as enraged. Or maybe to enrage him, I don't know. The book's title argues that Obama is angry at the root. He's radically angry. Or maybe an angry radical. It's hard to reconcile that assertion with the Obama we see, but then that's the point. His coolness is just a facade. In private, below the surface, he's volatile, wrathful, and unpredictable. It's a good attack strategy, because we all know that extreme emotions diminish leaders, make them seem, well, feminine. Un-leaderly. At the same time, a real leader has to seem human and empathetic. It's a delicate balance that few can master.

For Obama, as for Othello, the stakes are even higher. One uncontrolled outburst and a whole bunch of stereotypes kick in. The angry black man. The violent outsider. The dangerous, volatile Primitive. Or as Roderigo puts it, the "extravagant and wheeling stranger." It's simply safer to hide behind a public persona and keep the private (implicitly feminine) world of emotions--even positive emotions--under lock and key. So both O's try hard not to get sucked into the private sphere. Because once a leader gets pulled into that danger zone, there's no getting out.

Look at Bill Clinton, after all.

My point, I guess, is that Obama's insistence on being nothing more than a public man, his refusal to get emotional, to show us anything of his private self, is a lot like the Othello we see in Act 1. Othello's not comfortable with the private sphere at all.  In explaining how Desdemona fell in love with him, he paints it as hero-worship, not ardor or even friendship.  "She loved me for the dangers I had passed," he insists, "and I loved her that she did pity them."  She loved my action-hero adventures, and I loved her for admiring them. This is Othello's version of romance. Desdemona fell in love with him because he was good at his job, essentially.

Significantly, this is not how Desdemona herself sees it:

That I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world. My heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord.
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honours and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate....

To hell with public opinion and authority, she says. I don't care how much public outrage it causes--I love him anyway, and I'm with him all the way. I'm not concerned with appearances--I saw Othello's true face in his mind, not on the surface of  his skin. Where Othello sees the relationship in conventional, even superficial terms, Desdemona is having none of it. She's not interested in appearances or surfaces. She sees the truth of the man behind the color of his skin.

This fundamental difference between the two--Othello's obsession with reputation and appearances, and Desdemona's dismissal of public opinion--is more profound than any racial difference could ever be.  Because Desdemona chooses love over convention, because she insists that Othello's skin color is irrelevant, she's actually calling Othello's whole world view into question. In philosophical terms, she's a Platonist, while he's an Aristotelian.  A true mixed marriage. This philosophical difference--which is also a psychological one--ultimately creates a gap between them, a blank place that Iago fills with his own malign and tragic narrative.

Next: Black is black. Except when it's not.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


That's a pretty hubristic title for my comeback post, but I think I'll use it anyway.  Yes, my loyal readers, the Bard Blog is back. Under its old name, too. In the long months of its absence, it hasn't been entirely idle. As some of you may know, it wandered across the web to its own lovely little site, far from its provincial origins here at Blogger.  My husband, who is a hotshot web designer, created the new site for me, and it was very cool-looking. But he didn't bother to figure out how to get rid of all the comment spam, so I got like seventy comments a day that said generic stuff like "very cool blog," or "interesting ideas," and embedded a link to another site. This, I realized, was a classic bush-league attempt to raise search rankings...well, never mind.

Anyway, I moaned about this to (read: nagged) said spouse until, in the manner of beleaguered husbands everywhere, he tried to fix it. And proceeded to wreck the interface. No, I don't fully understand what happened, but suffice it to say it was completely FUBAR. Shortly thereafter, our company got a big design/software development contract, and fixing Gayle's blog quickly sank to the bottom of hubby's to-do list. Which I understand--putting food on the table and shoes on the kid must come first. Nevertheless, I didn't give up hope. It seemed certain that a golden window of blog-fixing opportunity was going to open soon, so I waited. And waited. But finally, I realized that--like a failed adventurer--I was going to have to cut my losses and move back home. You know, back to the parents' house--which is sort of what Blogger is, vis a vis my peripatetic blog.  I miss my cool new/old site, although I only had it for a little while.  But I am happy to have a place to go and continue my musings about the Bard here.

What I Did on My Vacation

While I was away (at the other site) I wrote a bunch of posts about the Authorship Question. By the time I got to the seventh post I was pretty sick of it, and couldn't wait to get back to the plays. I still have those seven posts, all ready to go, but I think I'll hold them back for a bit, maybe let them trickle out here every few weeks, just for something different. Or when I'm too busy to write new stuff. But I have to say, I was kind of weirded out/surprised by how super-passionate some of these anti-Stratfordian types are. Mostly they're people who believe that the Earl of Oxford is the real Shakespeare, and that there's been a black-ops conspiracy going on since the seventeenth century. I'm not going to get into this again now. But I should fess up and say that this kind of thing makes me uncomfortable--conspiracy theories of all kinds are rampant on the web, I know...and maybe it will someday be proved that some of them are true. But until then, I prefer to live in my rationalist fool's paradise.

I did learn a lot writing those posts, though.  Academics--a tribe to which, as some of you know, I once belonged--have pretty much no truck with the whole alt-Shakespeare carnival.  I never heard much about it at all, in all the Shakespeare classes I took in college and grad school. As a consequence, I never talked about it in any of the many Shakespeare classes I taught, either. But it's really a pretty interesting subject from a historical standpoint.  Basically, every era has its own Shakespeare pretender, who more or less reflects the concerns, fantasies, and anxieties of the time. And the conspiracy theorists themselves--whose numbers include Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud and several Supreme Court justices--are just as interesting.

But as I said, I'm not going to go back there right now. I need to read a play! Really read it, like for the next few months. And after a lot of ruminations on the subject, I decided to junk my whole "early plays first" scheme and go straight for one of the Biggies. No, not the Ultra-biggies--not Hamlet or Lear. Not quite ready for those yet.  But right now, 2011, seems like a good time to read number three on my list of Will's Most Important Works.  This play takes up many of the issues we looked at in The Merchant of Venice--outsider vs. insider, race/ethnicity, gender and power.

Yeah, okay--that could be a lot of plays. But I'm talking about Othello. It seems timely, when so many fantasies about race and leadership are playing out in our own political culture. And it's in many ways the most "modern" of all Will's plays--the issues, anxieties, and pathologies it dramatizes are still with us, virtually unchanged in essence.

So let's get started. It's going to be a long one, but I hope it will be fun, too.