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.

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