Monday, February 20, 2012

Courtship and Cannibalism

Romantic relationships have a lot in common with the Age of Exploration. (Who knew, right?) Everyone is looking for an easy route to emotional riches--a Fountain of Youth, a Lost Horizon of Desire. But instead of gold, silk and spices, we more often find a completely alien land, rife with unforeseen dangers. The natives don't speak our language, and some of them are armed. If we're not careful, we can end up consumed--eaten up by jealousy, or just the sheer force of some else's personality. Maps are often completely useless--we just have to hope the winds are with us, we land somewhere safe, and don't get cannibalized.

Okay, I think I've exhausted that metaphor--but it's something that I suspect Will had in mind when he wrote Othello. During the Renaissance, everyone was wild about travel narratives--despite the fact that many of them were more fiction than fact. If you enlarge the map above, you might notice a "cannibal tree." Yes, cannibals! According to some travel writers, the New World was full of them. Savages who eat "civilized" Europeans for breakfast. Or maybe dinner, with some maize and a nice Chianti.

Now, as I pointed out in an earlier post, Othello is stuffed to bursting with gastrointestinal imagery. When Brabantio finds out that his daughter has run off with the Moor, his grief "engluts and swallows other sorrows." Iago, resentful of Cassio's social rank and courtly manners, metaphorically transforms the latter's genteel hand gesture into a matter of "clyster-pipes," i.e., enema tubes. (Ick, I know). Elsewhere he speaks of laxatives ("coloquintida"), and promises Roderigo that eventually Desdemona will "gorge, disrelish, and abhor the Moor."  Similarly, Iago's practical wife Emilia describes men in digestive terms:

They are all but stomachs, and we all but food.
They eat us hungrily, and when they are full,
They belch us.

That's one of my favorite short passages in the play, not least because the final line actually ends on a sort of metric belch.

Of course the intestinal imagery is mostly Iago's. He's the one who sees human beings as gluttonous animals, driven by base desires. By contrast, Othello is the man from exotic--and therefore "savage" places, who's fixated on "civilized" virtues--honor, reputation, valor. He marries a high-born girl from a good Venetian family, because appearances are important to him. They aren't important to Desdemona, though--if they were, she wouldn't be with him. She loves all the things in him that he is trying to repress. And he loves all the things in her that she's trying to reject.

Where's when you need it? Any decent dating algorithm could tell you that these two are doomed.

Well, anyway. Othello and Desdemona are married. Offstage, before the play even begins. In fact, you have to read carefully to find confirmation of the rumored marriage--there's so much talk of enchantment and abduction and all that, that it's unclear whether or not the liaison has been formalized and sanctified in marriage. But Othello says it in Act 1--although in a syntactically odd way:

That I have ta'en away this old man's daughter,
It is true, most true, that I have married her. 

It's true that I have taken her, true that I have married her. He's being ironic, of course--because he's going to reveal that she was wooed and won, not simply "taken," as Brabantio assumes, via magic or some other insidious means. And how did he woo her? The way all the wooing/seducing/traducing happens in this play--with stories.

Which are, of course, a kind of magic--a conjuring of new possibilities, portals to another reality. Othello the adventurer, the world-traveler, steps into the small and circumscribed world of this upper-class Venetian girl, and, as we used to say in the olden days, blows her mind. I mean, think about it. Desdemona spends almost all her time indoors, with family. As an unmarried woman she's allowed no freedom, has no future beyond what her father plans for her. And then, along comes this amazing, exotic, and yes, sexy man. With stories! Action movies, starring himself:

...I spoke of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents, by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth scapes i'th' imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence....

Indiana Jones, eat your heart out. Othello shows Desdemona the world beyond her walls, and it's a pretty exciting place. Is it any wonder she fell for him? I mean, many of us have had experiences like this in youth. Take a girl from a provincial Midwestern city, say, and introduce her to a guy who speaks six languages and has lived on nearly every continent. If she's got any imagination at all, she's going to look at the boring guys in her home town ("wealthy, curled darlings"), then back at the wild, untamed storyteller before her, and throw caution to the winds.

A couple of decades later, this guy will probably be filed under "bad boyfriends," but never mind. At the time, he was all her desires/rebellions/dreams wrapped up in a James Deanian package her parents were sure to hate. He was, in short, utterly irresistible.

Yeah, that was a bit of an autobiographical aside...anyway, back to the play.  Othello's stories tap into the current craze for wild, improbable travel narratives, and he makes sure to throw in a few cannibals, just to, um, spice things up:

...Such was my process,
And of the cannibals that each other eat, 
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
 Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline,
But still the house affairs would draw her thence,
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch
She'd come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse....

This was my story, he says. Of far-away places and perilous encounters with "Anthropophagi," or cannibals that eat each other, and of men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders.

Hmm. I think I may have dated one of these guys.  I knew something was missing....

And of course Desdemona eats it up. Uh, literally. "With a greedy ear," she would "devour up" his tales. Yum, yum.

Now, considering how much of this play turns on stories that aren't true, perhaps we ought to think about this seductive travelogue a bit more. Really, Othello? Headless men? Cannibals? Really? I mean, how are we supposed to take this--as a fantastic but true tale that won the heart of the fair damsel, a somewhat fictionalized seduction tool? Perhaps the irony is only apparent from our own historical vantage point. After all, many people in Will's day--possibly including the playwright himself--read things like Mandeville's Travels and Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, and believed every word. But from our modern perspective, this soliloquy looks different. A courtship founded in fabrication, a marriage doomed by lies. Food for thought. I mean, um, something to think about.

So that's my first post in a long while. I hope to keep this going, and eventually finish the play! Now, though, I'm kinda hungry....