home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


16 january 2016

Othello is notable for representing racism, but not seeming to share the racism of some of its characters. Or rather, since it's anyone's guess what either Shakespeare or "the play" thinks, it's a play that represents a lot of people who don't share the racism of a few of its characters. Othello is black; he and other characters talk about it a lot; even Othello thinks white is a preferable skin color. But he's also skillful, admired, and noble even in his miserable suicide at the end of the play. He's got the most famous tragic flaw in world drama, but its color is not black but green.

I'd argue that Othello is Shakespeare's best play. It has a concentrated plot, terrific forward momentum, exquisite realistic dialogue, verbal and symbolic resonance, grand poetry … what does it lack? Men you can really like, perhaps. There's no Menenius here, or Enobarbus, or Kent in the play. There isn't even a Macduff, someone who is stand-up sympathetic if neither personable nor poetic. Iago, of course, is very personable and endlessly poetic; he fills the role of charming sidekick to the hero. But sidekicks like Iago you can live without.

The most sympathetic characters in Othello are its women: Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca. They are alternately doted on, scorned, and knocked around, and two of them are killed. The play is about domestic abuse, as many observers have realized, mostly in recent years. It's about how men cultivate a low opinion of women and translate it into smothering or stabbing them. Men stab men in the process too, quite a lot, but it's all because of their inflexible possessiveness about women.

It wasn't God who made honky-tonk angels, explains Emilia (Iago's wife):

What is it that they do,
When they change vs for others? Is it Sport?
I thinke it is: and doth Affection breed it?
I thinke it doth. Is't Frailty that thus erres?
It is so too. And haue not we Affections?
Desires for Sport? and Frailty, as men haue?
Then let them vse vs well: else let them know,
The illes we do, their illes instruct vs so. (Act 4, Scene 3)
Edward Pechter, in his Norton Critical Edition, compares Emilia to Shylock and cites E.A.J. Honigmann to the effect that complaints against double standards are commonplace. True enough, but here the complaint comes in the context of a campaign of violence so one-sided that Emilia's words ring all the truer. Shylock, after all, wants his pound of flesh; girls, to Emilia's mind, just want to have fun.

If one can still admire Othello to some degree, it's because when he's not drunk on testosterone he realizes that Emilia is right (and at the end of the play realizes that he's been horribly wrong). In his better moments Othello wants a woman (and knows he's married to one) who can live out Emilia's basic sex-positiveness in the context of a trusting relationship:

'Tis not to make me Iealious,
To say my wife is faire, feeds well, loues company,
Is free of Speech, Sings, Playes, and Dances:
Where Vertue is, these are more vertuous.
Nor from mine owne weake merites, will I draw
The smallest feare, or doubt of her reuolt,
For she had eyes, and chose me. (Act 3, Scene 3)
But sensible though they are, these words come in the middle of Shakespeare's most accomplished piece of stagecraft, the long central scene in the third act where Othello shifts from having not a domestic care to swearing himself to a program of violent revenge.

Near the start of my current swing through Shakespeare, which is almost over now, I reflected on Measure for Measure as a conservative, fairly misogynist play; but I was a little hasty in saying that this conservatism is pervasive in Shakespeare. I think Shakespeare is almost invariably conservative (even for his time) in terms of social class, authoritarianism, and monarchic values; but he is more unbuttoned than most of his contemporaries on matters of gender and sexuality. Othello may be to Measure for Measure, in terms of gender, what it is to The Merchant of Venice in terms of race: a play that represents misogyny but offers us characters who resist it. But as so often in real life, the resisters are badly beaten by the representers.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. 1622, 1623. Edited by Edward Pechter. New York: Norton, 2004. PR 2829 .A2P43

Shakespeare, William. Othello. 1622, 1623. Edited by Jessica Slights. Internet Shakespeare Edition.