A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Iago, Morgan Freeman and Racism


In Othello, Iago is a battle-hardened soldier vying for promotion within the Venetian army. In the same way that Nissan's corporate board hired the non-Japanese Carl Ghosn to run their company, the city fathers have placed the Venetian army under the command of Othello, a Moor (meaning a dark-skinned North African). Othello chooses not Iago but Cassio as his lieutenant. Here's Cassio, as Iago describes him: (theoric means theory; togaed means toga-wearing; unless means except for):

Iago: "a fellow that 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 counsels can propose
As masterly as he. Mere prattle, without practice
Is all his soldiership….".

Iago goes on to frame Cassio in a crime he didn't commit, to deceive Othello into thinking that his faithful Desdemona is adulterous, and to murder his own wife Emilia to keep his machinations secret. In the end, Iago is the only villain in Shakespeare whose punishment is torture. (On the other hand, Iago did have a point about the injustice of Cassio's promotion).

Anyway, bitter at being passed over, Iago learns that Othello has eloped with Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio, a Venetian aristocrat. Iago rats Othello out, attempting to inflame Brabantio's anger with racist allusions:

Iago: "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!"


Iago: "…Because we come to do you service and
you think we are ruffians, you'll have your daughter
covered by a Barbary horse; you'll have your nephews
neigh for you…".

All of this, of course, brings us to some comments made by the actor Morgan Freeman. When interviewed about Black History Month (which he opposes), Mr. Freeman suggested that the only way to get rid of racism is to "stop talking about it."

"I am going to stop calling you a white man
and I'm going to ask you to stop calling me
a black man."

Mr. Freeman's proposal, that we formally jettison the concept of race and just address each other as people, seems a bit revolutionary in the context of today's politics and social assumptions. But it is interesting to note that the Elizabethans would have had no trouble with it.

True, Brabantio assumes that Othello, because of his perceived ugliness, must have coerced Desdemona into marrying him. Brabantio shares the biases of the day about dark-skinned Moors, but to call those biases racism is to impose a modern way of thinking on a people who thought differently. There was knowledge in seafaring Elizabethan England of people of different skin colors, but there were no firm racial identities – just as there was knowledge of homosexual behavior but no concept of a homosexual identity.

As it turns out, Othello is able to win his new father-in-law Brabantio over with a speech describing how naturally and innocently his courtship of Desdemona was conducted:

Oth: "Her father loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned me the story of my life
From year to year – the battles, sieges, fortunes
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days
To th' very moment that he bade me tell it,
Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hairbreadth scapes i' th' imminent deadly breach
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence,
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;…".

Desdemona confirms Othello's account and Brabantio consents to the marriage. And to the audience it seems like we are headed to Morgan Freeman's ideal world. But a world free of racial categories is not a world that Iago can be comfortable in.

It is worth noting Iago's openly racist comments were made in the very first scene of the play, before the audience has met Othello. Bardseye imagines that the same Elizabethan audience that would howl with pleasure at the sight of a bear being torn to bits (bearbaiting was a favorite pastime of the day) would have howled with pleasure at these jokes as well. Othello is off-stage, after all, and Shakespeare waits for the laughter to subside before introducing him, at which time the Bard gives him speeches of such nobility and poetic strength that the same audience would find its recent laughter, directed at the same man, catching in its collective throat.

This is probably a backward projection of mine, an imposition of modern analysis onto a world where it does not apply. It may just be a coincidence of the plot that has Iago direct such viciousness against Othello a moment before he arrives on stage in all his gentle masculine majesty.

Each century finds in Shakespeare, through his humanity, answers to its own questions, questions that lay beyond Shakespeare's own day, in the undiscovered country of the future. Just as Mr. Freeman's description of a post-racist world may have pointed to the undiscovered country of our future. As for Mr. Freeman's imagined future, as Hamlet says in a somewhat different context:

"'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."

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