Sunday, March 13, 2011

Treason of the Blood, Part 1

Miscegenation. A fancy latinate word for something that our forebears usually thought about in cruder terms: the sexual and/or conjugal mixing of races. It signified the violation of a taboo, the transgression of boundaries. A sin against nature. Mixed-race liaisons in literature have pretty much always ended badly, with one or both parties paying the ultimate price for their transgression. Often in Othello-ish terms, whereby a white woman is murdered by her black lover. William Faulkner's Light in August and Richard Wright's Native Son are two modern works that owe their moral structure to Othello. In both, a demonized black or "racially impure" man kills a white woman in her bed. Both murdered women are "free-thinkers" who are trying to escape from the strictures of class and gender. Both men are socially marginal, oppressed by history, and burdened with the question of race. That's why they all have to die.

Happily, history seems to have overtaken literature on the subject of race-mixing. There are lots of interracial couples now. I can think of four, just among the parents in my son's fourth-grade class. It's no big deal, at least in my part of the world.

But for much of history, interracial marriage was a very big deal. It could get you killed, or at least exiled from your community. It wasn't just distasteful--it smacked of treason, at least from the dominant white perspective.  While it was considered acceptable for a powerful white man to have a black mistress (think Jefferson), a white woman who consorted with men of other races was worse than a whore. She was a traitor to her own kind. These liaisons were considered monstrous--in the iconography, the man was often portrayed as almost simian. So the mixing of races became, by implication, a mixing of species as well.

The fact that Shakespeare, our most deified and mythologized dramatist/poet, wrote a play about miscegenation has perplexed, disturbed, and intrigued readers for four centuries. People from all walks of life have weighed in on this most famous literary mesalliance.  Check out this quote from well-known Romantic poet and drug addict, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: would be something monstrous to conceive of this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.

Now here's a perfect example of the kind of thing I was talking about in one of my authorship posts. Namely, why I don't want to know anything about the personal lives and political opinions of the authors I admire. I love Coleridge's poems. Love the stately pleasure dome, and the undead romance between Christabel and Geraldine. Love the albatross and the creepy Mariner.  Not so enamored of this racist quote--although it is interesting in other ways. Let's have a look.

First, the phrase "veritable negro."  As opposed to what, a putative negro?  Coleridge implies that Othello's race must be at least ambiguous--otherwise Desdemona is guilty of "disproportionateness."  Now there's a word. A neologism, I suspect--why not simply "disproportion?"  The "ness," of course, works as an intensifier. Having fallen in love with an unambiguously African man, she must be really disproportionate. Exceedingly, excessively out of balance. Nowadays, we understand "unbalanced" in psychological terms. "After the death of his wife (dog, mother, career) Mr. Smith became unbalanced." He started acting crazy. I think Coleridge understands it differently. He's talking about an aesthetic problem here--Desdemona, despite her beauty, doesn't understand symmetry.  Her aesthetic sensibilities are flawed. She doesn't see the balance in nature. She's got a Cubist's perspective on the world.

Coleridge, of course, was a Romantic in the most pathological sense of the term. He liked his women pale and frail, wasting away in some florid Lake Country bower. Not outspoken and rebellious. And definitely not in charge of their own sexual desire. Disproportionateness, indeed. One has to wonder, however, if Coleridge was aware of the irony of his word choice. Because he clearly echoes Iago, who, in Act 3, says similar things about Othello's wife and her odd predilections:

Not to affect many proposed matches 
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends--
Foh, one may smell in a such a will most rank,
Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural!

Iago here plays on Othello's self-hatred, his bone-deep certainty that a woman like Desdemona couldn't possibly love a man of his color and condition, unless there was something really wrong with her. What's that corny old expression? I wouldn't join a club that would have me as a member?  Othello secretly feels inferior to his wife, and finds it easy to believe that her affection stems from something pathological. Some excessive, extravagant, and corrupt aspect of her own nature. An unnatural, foul disproportionateness. Notice Iago's crude reference to smell--Desdemona's desires are not only perverted, they're malodorous, too. Iago's comment, insulting as it is, doesn't make Othello angry, because it's what he suspects himself. No one of Desdemona's complexion and degree--skin color and rank--could ever love a guy like him. She must be unbalanced.

Bestial Imaginings

In the last Othello post, we left Iago and Roderigo crouching in the bushes in the dead of night, hoping to scare Brabantio into annulling Othello's marriage.  Brabantio, awakened from a sound sleep, comes to the window. "What is the reason of this terrible summons?" he asks. Of course this reminds us of Hamlet--after King Hamlet's ghost does its disappearing act, Horatio remarks that "it started like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons."  The fearful summons being, presumably, marching orders from Hell.  Brabantio responds to his own summons fearfully--he knows that whatever has awakened him, it's likely nothing good. Sure enough, Iago hisses out the hellish news:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say. 

I've always found it jarring that Iago frames this obscene accusation in quasi-biblical language. "Arise, arise!" reminds me of Paul's letter to the Ephesians: "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light," or this one from Isaiah: "Arise, shine, for your light has come...." And even Deborah's song from Judges: "Awake, awake, Deborah...Arise Barak, and lead away your captives...."

Yep, I've got the whole Bible memorized, cover to cover. 

Just kidding. But this little speech really is a wolf in sheep's clothing, isn't it? We have this sublime biblical echo, with its prophecies, promises, and divine commands, as well as the disturbing picture of copulating sheep and demonic offspring. Dark doings wrapped in the language of light. Iago claims to be "enlightening" Barbantio, but really he's just making the truth--Desdemona and Othello are married--seem darker and dirtier than it is.

To Iago, everyone's a beast, a smelly, fearful creature driven by foul appetites. Although he often speaks in racist terms, I don't think he's a racist himself. He hates everyone, pretty much equally. He uses racist images and language to his advantage, because that's what gets a rise out of people. Really he doesn't care about race--he's a universalizing nihilist, a moral anarchist, a Machiavel. He's Richard III's more nuanced descendant--racism is just one more tool in his box of dirty tricks.

I guess I'll stop here for today--this post is obviously getting too long. More on sheep, horses, and treasonous blood next time...

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Wounded Name

 I promised to post some of my "authorship" stuff from last summer--from the old blog--when I'm too busy to put up any new Othello material. This has been a busy week, and I've got a cold, so here's the first of my series on authorship. Back to Othello in a day or two.

Oh God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
A prophetic soul, indeed. When Hamlet speaks these lines in Act 5, he’s dying and worried about his reputation. “Report me and my cause aright,” he tells Horatio. Tell them I was a good guy, don’t let them jump to conclusions based on scanty evidence. The proponents of “alternative Shakespeares” have traditionally seized upon this dramatic plea as “proof” that their guy (Bacon, Marlowe, De Vere, or some lesser-known contender) was the real Bard, putting his own worried words in his character’s mouth.

At their worst, these theories reduce Shakespeare’s most famous characters to ventriloquist’s dummies, mere mouthpieces through which the “real” Shakespeare reveals his (hitherto encrypted) identity.  As if all literature is really just autobiography in disguise. They kind of have to make that argument, though, since the historical record is absolutely silent on the validity of any of these claims.

No, I’m not going to make a “Stratfordian” argument here.  At least not today.  I’m going to talk about why this whole controversy confuses me, and makes me sad. Because I don’t think any of these conspiracy theorists really appreciates the plays. In fact, I doubt they’ve really read them as literature—they’re too busy looking for “clues.”

And that’s, well, tragic. Hyperbolically speaking.

The “Truth” is Out There

In some cases, way out there.  We’re talking cryptography machines, government cover-ups, incestuously-conceived offspring of putatively virgin queens, and so on.  It’s a wild ride, reading through this stuff.  Part X-Files, part Jerry Springer. I came unwillingly to the “authorship controversy,” I’ll admit. And even now, when I’ve decided to devote several posts (there’s just too much to write about in just one) to the topic, it still grates a little.  Partly because it was never ever discussed in any of my college English classes, so part of me—the snooty academic who still lurks behind my populist facade—really doesn’t think it’s a valid subject for argument.

There, I’ve said it. I always thought it was kind of a fringy topic, like Area 51 or the Chariots of the Gods. Or, more insidiously, the idea that the government caused AIDS, or the moon landing was a fake, or the Bush Administration staged 9/11.  And I’ll tell you right now, I don’t believe in any of those things. Not even a little.

Okay, maybe Area 51, a teensy bit. But only because I’m a sci-fi nerd.

But then, a few months ago, an old friend whom I hadn’t heard from in about a decade—a friend who graduated from the same swanky Ph.D. program that ate up my youth—came out of the closet. No, not that one. I mean the Oxfordian closet.  At that time I barely knew what “Oxfordian'” meant. My first inclination was to think that he’d become some kind of rabid Anglophile.  But then I remembered an article I’d read in the Atlantic, or some similarly prissy scandal sheet, about how some people think a dissolute 16th century aristo really “wrote Shakespeare.” Those people, I should point out, include Sigmund Freud, several Supreme Court justices (past and present) and a handful of pretty famous Shakespearean actors.

So I decided anyone who writes a “Shakespeare blog,” even with as modest a readership as this one boasts, is intellectually—not to say morally—obliged to address the topic.

But where to start? I knew next to nothing about any of this. I decided to start where the whole dispute starts. With biography.  And why I just don’t care about it.

Ironically, in order to properly address this topic, I have to write a little bit about my past.

The Abridged Bio of an Anti-Biographist

First, I am born.  Later, I went to fourteen, count ‘em, 14 grade schools. That means that sometimes, I changed cities and houses and schools two or three times in one year! It wreaked havoc on my math skills. And, more devastatingly, my interpersonal ones. But I’m a (relatively) sane person who pretty much came out of it okay.

Because of books.  I never had many friends, and my four brothers were living in Guyville (a place to which I never gained admission), so I read books. All the time.  Everything I learned about life came from books.  Of course, this led to some pretty disappointing moments as an adult. You see, in books, justice always triumphs, if only by showing how unjust things are. Love conquers all. Bad people are punished—with scorn and ignominy, if nothing else—and good people are noble, brave, and loyal. There are moral victories in the face of defeats.

I guess you probably know that life is seldom, if ever, like that.

As great as books are, however, they are written by flawed people.  Sometimes seriously flawed (Eliot, Pound, Rousseau, Hemingway, etc. etc.). Do I really want to know that Tolstoy treated his wife as a servant? That Coleridge was a drug addict? That Yeats was a fascist?

Not especially.  It’s not that I think these guys should remain “innocent,” that they should be revered and protected from history. I’m just not really interested in their personal lives. The wonderful thing about homo sapiens is that we can imagine other, better worlds than the one we currently inhabit.  If we’re lucky, our imaginations exceed the more sordid/shameful/unhappy facts of our lives.  When I think about Chaucer, scratching out narrative poems by candlelight amid all that nasty, brutish, short-livedness that was medieval England, I think about that. Imagination.

Yep, I’m a card-carrying humanist.

So I have to say, I don’t have a big investment in who the “real” Shakespeare was, except as it touches on this one subject. Because it seems to me that a lot of these conspiracy theorists base their whole argument on the premise that a person can’t write about things he’s never experienced. To me, this disparages the very best thing about literature, and art in general. Imagination. Will Shakespeare wasn’t an aristocrat, so he couldn’t know anything about court life. He wasn’t captured by pirates. He hadn’t been to Italy. He’d never practiced law.

Please. If real-life experience were a prerequisite for story-telling, the vast majority of genres wouldn’t exist. No romance written by the love-starved. No science fiction written by anyone. No vampire stories! No Thousand and One Nights! No crime fiction, unless it was written by criminals.

So that’s a big problem for me.  That and, um, the absolute lack of any historical evidence to support these claims. Because I’m not only a humanist, I’m an empiricist, too.

That said, there is a lot that’s interesting about this whole controversy. It really says more about who we are, we modern people, than who “Shakespeare” was.  So I’m going to jump right in and take a look at the whole thing, starting from the evidence for “the Stratford man,” next time.

Who knows? Maybe, along the way, I’ll change my mind about everything.

So that was my first authorship post. Expect the next one sometime in the near future--whenever I'm too busy or sniffly to write something new. Next time, back to the play.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Darkness, Darkness

Othello is a journey to the underworld. At least that's how I've always thought of it. A one-way ticket to the unconscious--the other side of our cheery, open-minded, and rational selves. Because we all know that behind those Martha Stewart centerpieces and Hallmark ornaments there's a dark passageway to moral anarchy. Iago knows it too. He's our ugliest self. The self that thinks the racist, misogynist, elitist, narcissistic, anti-everything-but-me thought before we can censor it. We don't like to admit he exists, but he mumbles in the background when we're feeling vulnerable, or petty, or angry. And if we're really weak, we listen to him.

Yeah, I've read some Freud. He gets a bad rap these days, but he really transformed the way we think. Before Freud, demonic possession was the only way to explain human craziness--our insatiable need to affirm our existence by destroying our own kind.  I kill, therefore I am.

What other species does that?

Freud was wrong about a lot of stuff, but he was right about this. There is a part of the human psyche that talks when we want it to shut up. He called it the id, but earlier people called it the Devil. Usually our fear of the law, or sense of morality (okay, those are close to the same thing) keeps that crazy, world-destroying voice under wraps. But sometimes we listen. Sometimes we even do the bad stuff it tells us to do. In Star Wars terms (remember, I have a 10-year-old son), we've crossed over to the Dark Side. We've Executed Order 66, and turned out the lights of reason. The good, rational clones in our head have become killer storm troopers, and all hell breaks loose.

Okay, if you don't have a 10-year-old son, you won't get that. I guess what I mean is that there's a tiny Iago in most of us. If we feed him, he'll grow up into a big, world-eating Iago and do awful stuff.  Interestingly, there's a lot of intestinal/digestive imagery in Othello, most of it associated with Iago. Laxatives, enemas, vomiting--he uses all these images to remind the audience that human beings aren't really, as Hamlet put it, "the paragon of animals."  We're just animals. Brutes who devour, and regurgitate, and defecate. To Iago, we're rams and ewes and goats and monkeys--beasts who are ruled by appetites, not reason. I always associate Iago with that famous Hieronymus Bosch painting--you know, the one where Hell is a kind of gastrointestinal nightmare:

Iago isn't just anti-rational. He's anti-humanist in the broadest sense. Anti-Renaissance, anti-Enlightenment avant la lettre. What he wants, really, is to turn out the lights. If you've read the whole play, you'll remember Othello's words, just before he smothers his wife in the marriage bed:

Put out the light, and then put out the light.

Let there be darkness. Welcome to Hell.

But as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning, back to Venice. Where it's already dark. Yep, the play begins in the middle of the night. In case you don't get the dark/light thing,Will kind of hammers you over the head with it. It's dark, probably after midnight, and everyone is asleep. Except Iago and Roderigo, who are crouching under Brabantio's window, gossiping.  "Tush, never tell me" hisses Roderigo.  Iago has just told him the news--Othello and Desdemona have secretly married.  "No, you're kidding, really?" It's an interesting way to begin the play--with Iago and Roderigo whispering in the dark, like two teenagers out after curfew. They seem silly here, mere pranksters. Ready to TP Brabantio's house, or something.

In fact, the whole plot of Othello would work pretty well in a high school setting--a good girl whose reputation is ruined, an insecure star athlete, a jealous, racist teammate...oh, wait! They made that movie! It's called...wait for it...O.  I haven't seen it, but it stars Julia Stiles, who was also in that Taming of the Shrew redaction called 10 Things I Hate About You.  I wrote a little about that movie way back when this blog was in its infancy...anyway, I guess Julia made a brief career out of those Shakespeare-goes-to-high-school films. I'm waiting for the Macbeth one, where the editor of the school newspaper and his geeky girlfriend murder the student council president, egged on by three goth girls who hate everyone. It'll have a suitably banal title, like Go for It, or something. Julia Stiles is too old to play the geek girl, but probably one of those Disney robot starlets could do the job just fine.

Okay, back to our dimly-lit story. Iago and Roderigo are hiding, planning to scare the crap out of Brabantio by waking him up in the middle of the night with bad news.  Namely, that his pretty white daughter has run off with a sooty-skinned Moor. Roderigo, remember, is Desdemona's spurned suitor.

So what do we find out in these opening lines? Iago hates Othello because the Moor passed him over for promotion, preferring the somewhat foppish pencil-pusher, Cassio, who

...never set a squadron in the field,
nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster--unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the togaed consuls can propose 
As masterly as he. Mere prattle without practice
Is all his soldiership; but he, sir, had th'election...

Cassio is all hat and no cattle, a political man who's never led troops into battle. He's a man of words, not deeds--prattle without practice. Funny accusation coming from Iago, who's the master of dangerous prattle. Who never does anything himself, but rather talks others to their doom.  As an excuse for everything that follows, it's pretty weak. Cassio himself, after all, isn't really the object of Iago's virulent hatred--Othello and Desdemona are. But Iago's nothing if not a brilliant stage director, and that's what we see here. He gives Roderigo very explicit instructions as to what to say, and what tone of voice to use when he awakens Brabantio from sleep:

Call up her father,
Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen,
And, though he in a fertile climate dwell, 
Plague him with flies. Though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such chances of vexation on't
As it may lose some colour.
Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell,
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
Is spied in populous cities.

Wake him up, then harangue him. Spread the word to all his relatives, so that his pleasant world is filled with misery. Although he's got a good life, inject some poison into it. And make sure you scare the hell out of him, so that he thinks his house is on fire or something.

These are pretty obvious stage directions. Use a loud voice with a fearful tremor in it. Use the darkness, and his half-asleep state, to your advantage. Make this private matter into a public one, so that the news of his daughter's miscegenation spreads like wildfire. Significantly, Iago himself remains anonymous throughout the scene. "It is not meet nor wholesome to my place/to be producted." It doesn't suit my purposes to reveal myself. He wants to remain whisper in the darkness, a disembodied, goading voice in the back of the mind. He wants, most of all, to drive people mad.

The devil, indeed.

Iago, like Richard III, is staging a drama, and he's the only one who knows how it's going to end. Like a good director, he hides behind the scenes, whispering prompts from the wings. But make no mistake--this is his play, and his story. Everyone else is still in the dark, waiting for instructions.