Monday, April 11, 2011

Treason of the Blood, Part 2

I haven't posted in almost a month, I know. I think the whole weird authorship thing--and some nastiness that hovered around it--sort of derailed me for awhile. Which is why I didn't post any of my remaining authorship stuff. I was the recipient of some mean-spirited, overly-personal diatribes, one of which was delivered by my Oxfordian old friend. Former friend, I guess. So that bummed me out, and I just decided to let the blog go a for a bit. And to (probably) let the authorship posts go forever. Or maybe just for a long while. There seems to be no room for respectful debate among a certain segment of the authorship folks. And frankly, I'm just not all that interested in the subject. I only wrote about it to satisfy my own curiosity, really.

Anyway, back to Othello.

When we last saw Brabantio, Desdemona's dad, he was standing outside in his nightgown, having been awakened by those two gossipy frat boys, Iago and Roderigo. Iago has taken off, the better to maintain his "honest" facade. Brabantio is left to lament his daughter's perfidy with her creepy ex-suitor, Roderigo. Although he rejected Roderigo's suit previously, the white guy now looks pretty good. Because not only has Desdemona run off, she's run off with the Moor.

Now Will's plays are chock-full of disobedient daughters. Desdemona, Hermia, Juliet, Cordelia, Jessica, Rosalind--all face the choice between father and lover, and all turn their backs on Daddy. It's also worth noting that Ophelia, who made the opposite choice, ended up sleeping with the fishes. Okay, floating in a brook...but the point is that Will's a good Protestant. He believes in marriage, believes that a woman's duty to her husband supersedes the loyalty she owes her father. Cordelia captures this idea in a nutshell, just before Lear disowns her:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

The wicked sisters, of course, don't love their father at all. Much less "all." But their pretense is yet another example of how wrong things are in Lear's kingdom, because the very idea of choosing the father over the husband was unnatural to Renaissance Christians. The moral center of Protestant society was the family. At the root of family, the chaste marriage. "Chaste" meaning faithful, not sexless.

Although I can't help remembering this scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Right after that great "Every Sperm is Sacred" song...

Sorry, silly digression. Anyway, when Brabantio accuses his daughter of betraying her "blood," he's not just talking about race. He's talking about the allegiance he feels a daughter owes to her father, above all others.

...O, treason of the blood!
Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters' minds
By what you see them act.

Fathers, don't trust your daughter's outward behavior, because she likely harbors perverted thoughts and desires underneath all those obedient smiles and nods. This notion of the "false front" is a leitmotif in the play, of course. Don't trust what you see on the surface, because the truth is somewhere else. Black can be white, and white can be black. Fair is foul, and foul is fair...oh, wait, that's Macbeth.

It's a concern of the theater, of course--false fronts, duplicity, masquerades. Because that's what the theater is all about. Pretense. But underneath the makeup, costumes, and crafted speeches, we're vouchsafed (love that word!) a glimpse of the truth, as well. The theater is fundamentally neo-platonic, isn't it? What you see isn't precisely what you get, but if you look below the surface, beneath the mask, you can see what's real, and true, and timeless. But of course there's a lot of anxiety about this, too--especially in Will's plays. That's why you have men playing women playing men in the comedies, for example. Because the "truth" is a slippery business. And masks are seductive.

A topic I'll deal with more when I blog another comedy. Which will probably be after Othello. If, you know, I ever finish this play.

So, when Brabantio finds out about his daughter's love for another man, he calls it betrayal. She chose her own desire over that of her dad. Bad girl. Her desires belong to him--for her to own them, and act on them, is the worst kind of disloyalty. Father knows best. And of course, being a good Protestant didn't mean being a feminist, or even a social liberal. Daughters were supposed to cleave unto their husbands, but Daddy was supposed to pick the guy out and hand her over. That's why we still have that weird "who gives this woman in marriage" thing in the wedding ceremony. Nowadays it seems quaint and old-fashioned, but for a long time, it was serious. The father literally did "give" his daughter--she was his property, and he disposed of her as he saw fit. As Old Capulet tells Juliet, "An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend." I own you, so I'll give you to whomever I please.
Now Will consistently shows us that this kind attitude leads to tragedy. Or, in plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream, improbable comedy. The point is, he's not ambivalent on the subject. Daughters should be allowed to marry for love, not duty. Individual desire trumps outmoded social custom. Needless to say, theater isn't life, however.  For several centuries, aristocratic dads doubtless enjoyed a night of Shakespearean theater, then went home and married their daughters off to the richest, oldest creep they could find, her wishes be damned. Will was pretty far ahead of his time on this issue.

Apropos of fathers and daughters, I recently came across this story about the so called "Christian Daughters Movement," which is an offshoot of--what else?--the so-called Christian Patriarchy Movement. Personally, I find the term "Christian Patriarchy" a tad redundant, but never mind. The groups promoting these ideas claim biblical authority--you know, because women in the Bible didn't go to college or marry whomever they wanted, today's religious women shouldn't, either. They should stay at home with Daddy until he says it's okay to get married. To the guy he picks out for them. Just like Juliet's dad, and Hermia's, and Desdemona's. Yep, the Christian Daughters Movement is fertile ground for Shakespearean tragedy. Not to mention creepy abuses of the non-literary sort.  I find it interesting that this "return" is romanticized as a "movement." If you read the subtitle of this "manifesto," you'll see that it claims to offer "a vision of victory for single women of the 21st century."  Victory over selfhood, I guess. And responsibility. And maturity. All of which goes to show that in some weird pockets of our postmodern, tech-saturated culture, the Old Ideas still live on. Or fester, depending on your perspective.

Next time, Love Spells! Sort of...


  1. That Darth Vader image was perfectly placed. Indeed, Shakespeare knows very well how to write strong women that are no way damsels in distress, and it's a bit sad that some of the best ones end up dying off-stage.

  2. Cleopatra, of course is a notable exception--she gets a great death scene and a great speech to go with it.