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

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Othello and Homosexuality


Each of Shakespeare's great tragedies has a different claim on our affections. We like Hamlet, both the man and the play, even though almost everybody in it dies in a fifth act orgy of blood. Still, underneath the story, something of value is being achieved. Hamlet is enacting a tragedy and Horatio is witnessing it, and he is charged by Hamlet at the end with publishing it to the world for our reflection and remembrance. Plus these two men love each other, and that love at least endures. And so against all odds, audiences feel affection.

By contrast, no one feels affection for King Lear (the play, that is). It's more like fear. Because in Lear, not even love endures.

By more contrast, everybody likes Macbeth (again, the play). Why? Well, because it has witches. And instead of a good but flawed guy getting it in the end, a fairly bad guy and his hideous wife get it in the end. Plus it has witches.

But what do we think, or rather feel, about Othello? It's always harder to relate to a foreigner, a man with no real friends (even Macbeth has Banquo until he kills him; Lear has his fool; Hamlet Horatio). But Othello is alone, a stranger in a strange land, fighting the Venetians' battles for them (he's hired by the prosperous city-state to lead its military). And as for affection, he can neither understand Venice's men, nor be understood by them, well enough to sustain a true friendship.

Still, there's always sexual desire. And yes, the word homosexuality is in this post's title. I'm getting there.

Here's part of Othello's magnificent Act I description of his inadvertent courtship of Desdemona:

Oth: "…My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used.
Here comes the lady. Let her witness it."

Clearly Othello was more sought after than seeking, and some critics (those with too much time on their hands, I think) have suggested that this indicates a latent same-sex orientation. But if you really want latent gay impulses, you need look no further than Iago's weird fantasy in Act III scene iii, concocted as part of his campaign to sow suspicion in Othello's mind:

Iago: "…I lay with Cassio lately….
In sleep I heard him say, "Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves!"
And then, sir, would he grip and wring my hand,
Cry "O sweet creature!", then kiss me hard,
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg
Over my thigh, and sighed, and kissed, and then
Cried, "Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!"

Because Iago and Cassio are both soldiers, Iago's "I lay with Cassio lately" refers on the surface to sleeping in the barracks. But look how it is phrased. And then there's Cassio's somnolent deep kissing of Iago, complete with that overly thrilling phrase, " plucked up…by their roots," and the laying of Cassio's thigh over Iago's. For heaven's sake, Iago, why didn't you just wake the guy up?

Now, since all of this is a lie, and since any number of other lies would have done as well to foster Othello's suspicion, it's reasonable to speculate on Iago's impulses. Especially since there's other evidence. Iago couldn't be colder to his own wife Emilia. And Shakespeare must give Iago a hetero sidekick, Roderigo, to express desire and illicit intentions toward Desdemona, since Iago has none to muster.

Now, if there is any profitable point to these speculations, it lies in noticing that if Iago has any of what we today call homosexual desire, he is not conscious of it. How could he be, when the word homosexuality was itself not even coined until the mid-1800's? The practice existed of course, but not the concept of a related identity. With or without such urges, a man expected himself to marry. A woman.

Shakespeare, as always focusing on the human dimension, shows the effect of such desires as they work on a man who has never acknowledged them. A man whose mind apparently worked hard not to:

IAGO: "Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that
we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens,
to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if
we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop
and weep up thyme, supply it with one gender
of herbs or distract it with many, either to have
it sterile with idleness or manured with industry –
why, the power and corrigible authority of this
lies in our wills. If the beam of our lives had not
one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality,
the blood and baseness of our natures would
conduct us to most preposterous conclusions….".

It may not be possible to know if Shakespeare would have been pro or anti-gay marriage, or hate crimes legislation, or don’t-ask-don't-tell. But he did appear to dramatize in Othello the painful, tragic consequences of a policy of don't-ask-don't-tell-yourself.

Here a recommended post from the always recommendable Malcontent.

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