Friday, October 09, 2009

Othello: tragic victim or abuser?

So after listening to a male professor defend the 17th-century status quo which supposedly made it somehow understandable that Shakespeare's Othello would strangle his wife to death, I felt the need for a post on why the real tragedy of Othello is that it's full of misogyny.

For anyone who doesn't know the story, here's a brief synopsis:

Othello is a moor (black dude) who meets this girl named Desdemona.  He tells her a bunch of stories about all his travels and adventures as a soldier, and she falls in love with him.  They elope.  Her dad is initially pissed, but then figures Othello is a dude with high enough status to overlook the fact that he's black and lets it go.  But there's this other dude, Iago, who is basically insane and wants to ruin everyone else's lives.

With me so far?

So Iago hatches this plot to convince Othello that Desdemona is sleeping with one of Othello's soldiers, Cassio.  He does all kinds of tricky crap to mess with Othello's head and make him believe this nonsense.  In the end, Othello strangles Desdemona to death in her own bed without even checking the facts, and as she dies, she spouts some crap about how she killed herself and it's not Othello's fault (even though she hasn't done a damn thing).  Then Othello finds out she was innocent and kills himself.  Some other people wind up dead, too (Iago also kills his wife and some other people), but that's not entirely central to my point, so we'll leave it at that.

The moral of the story seems to be that, one, black people are basically overemotional animals who can be convinced of anything, and two, it's totally okay to kill your wife for cheating, but it becomes a tragedy if it turns out that she perfectly fits the archetype of the Madonna (as opposed to the whore; in the world of Shakespeare and many others, these are the only two types of women).

Yeah, I realize it's a bit more complicated than that.  Yeah, I realize that Shakespeare is considered an Artistic Genius by many serious academic people.  Yeah, I study literature; I get that he's been extraordinarily influential, etc.  And I'll admit I've got a slightly higher tolerance for misogyny in important works of literature than I do in, say, Swiffer commercials.

But here's the thing.  Othello has all the hallmarks of an abuser.  He's fast-moving and intense in his relationship with Desdemona.  From the beginning, it's all about him; he talks about himself endlessly, and that's what lures her in.  He isolates her from her family by taking her far away to a place where he's important and she's dealing on his turf.  He's insanely jealous and suspicious, controlling and irrational.  And the corpus delicti: he kills her.  On purpose.  Brutally.

According to most people, the tragedy here is that he kills her for no reason.  I'm going to go ahead and be radical and posit that there is never an acceptable reason to kill your wife.  Nope, not even if she cheats on you, which Desdemona didn't.

So my professor was going on about what an exceptional woman Desdemona is.  And surely enough, she is a perfect example of the first type of woman: the Madonna.  She is pure, loyal, subservient, and self-sacrificing.  She takes the blame for everything even though she has no idea why her husband has just strangled her (as an aside, her last lines are actually delivered after she's been strangled, and then, oddly enough, she dies).  There's no point in my arguing in that class that there's nothing exceptional about a woman who merely fits a misogynistic archetype; I already tried that with Helena when we were discussing All's Well That Ends Well, and the professor wasn't having it, no sir, no way.  He actually claimed that the latter is a feminist play.  But I digress.

The professor did at least admit that Othello was full of shit when he tried to claim that he'd killed Desdemona simply because he loved her so much (gag).  But then he went into this discussion of how, well, men were misogynists in the 17th century (as if they're not anymore) and people viewed women as property (it was four hundred years ago, so I guess that makes it okay), as if this somehow makes Othello's murderous fit a natural reaction, and then I'm pretty sure he went back to praising Desdemona.

I seriously just about got up and walked out.  Why?  Because this is exactly the same attitude you can see today in the media, in courtrooms, and even in random conversations you overhear walking down the street.  Remember all the justifications people were making for Chris Brown after he beat up Rihanna?  Incidentally, Rihanna, being young and attractive and successful, can't qualify as a Madonna, so she was painted as the other type of woman: the whore.  Whores are outspoken, independent, confident, defiant, and totally out of control.  "She was jealous," people said.  "She must have provoked him."

Either way, the women are reduced to ridiculous stereotypes, rendering them basically as non-entities, while the actual focus remains on the three-dimensional people: the men.  The tragedy of Othello is ostensibly not the fact that a woman--well, two women--were killed by their controlling husbands, but that poor Othello was deceived and made a terrible mistake by killing an innocent woman.

What I'd like to know is how things would have turned out if Desdemona had actually been cheating.  I suspect strongly that her murder would then have been painted as a righteous act of morality, and--you guessed it--she'd represent the whore, rather than the Madonna.  Because it's not as if there's room in Shakespeare's imagination for a woman who's actually human, a complex, sovereign entity like--oh I don't know--Othello or Iago, for instance.

If any further proof were needed of the blatant misogyny in Shakespeare, one might read his sonnets.  All the sonnets filled with lavish praise for the object of his desires are actually about young men; the ones about women basically read like a Led Zeppelin song: Oh, baby, I was so in love with you until you turned out to be a lying, cheating, deceitful whore, waahh, waahh.  Lovely stuff.

It's not that I can't appreciate Shakepeare's use of language, his imagery, his elaborate applications of metaphor.  I can.  I do.  But let's just call a spade a spade, shall we? and admit that his female characters are all two-dimensional stereotypes and that Othello was not the real victim in Othello.

Just a note: I didn't expound on factors of racism in the play, though they're certainly there.  That would be a whole other post.

And there's my rant for the day.
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