There Is a Big Problem with How We Talk about Othello

content note: murder, specifically murder related to sexual jealousy

This summer, I saw a performance of Othello. It was the first time I had seen or read the play in over ten years. And I was a bit shocked, because even though I knew the story of the play perfectly well, when I had seen or read the play before, I had never consciously thought about the fact that Othello thinks it is okay to kill his own wife because of infidelity. And everyone else in the play, except Emilia, seems to agree with him. The characters treats the murder of Desdemona as a tragedy because she was chaste, if she really had been engaging in an extra-marital affair, they would have been fine with Othello murdering her.

Othello’s final line came across as especially creepy, the one where he describes himself as being “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” Wanting to kill one’s wife because of jealousy counts as ‘loving too well’? Really? And if that is not what Othello means, then what does he mean? (note: I hope that people who consider killing their own wives because of jealousy to be an expression ‘love’ will never, ever love me)

In an English class in high school, we studied Othello. We analyzed the play extensively, from various different angles. We had in depth discussions of Othello’s feelings. Yet amid all of that analysis and discussion, I don’t recall anyone asking the question ‘if Desdemona was really having an affair with Cassio, would it be okay for Othello to kill her? Is the problem that Iago tricked Othello into thinking she was unchaste, or is the problem that Othello wanted to kill Desdemona ~at all~?’ And in retrospect, I am shocked that I have no memory of any discussion like that happening in my high school English class. If my memory is accurate, and we did not talk about that, then what does that imply about our values?

The most memorable part of studying Othello in that high school English class was hearing the teacher describe her Real Life Soap Opera. She shared with us the story of how a woman had an affair with one of her brothers, causing him to divorce his wife, then she had an affair with another one of her brothers, causing him to also divorce his wife, and then this woman had an affair with my teacher’s husband, which ruined their marriage, leading my teacher to legally separate from her husband and stop cohabiting with him. In addition to doing everything short of divorce to break up with her husband, my teacher played some mean-spirited pranks on the woman who had the extra marital affairs with her brothers and husband. My teacher was very proud of her pranking skills, and that she made the woman break down in tears. I got the impression that our English teacher really sympathized with Othello.

Legal separation and ending cohabitation are ethical and reasonable responses to infidelity. Mean-spirited pranks are not necessarily ethical or reasonable, but at least my English teacher (as far as I know) never threatened that woman with violence.

When Othello came to the conclusion that Desdemona was unfaithful, why did he immediately decide to murder her? Why not divorce, or legal separation? Or even mean-spirited pranks?

Maybe you’re thinking that we do not discuss whether it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona even if she had been unfaithful because the answer is obviously ‘no, of course it would not be okay’. Sadly, I can tell you that it was NOT obvious to all of my high school classmates.

This is a true story. I don’t want to reveal these people’s real names, so I am going to use the following names: Sara’s Classmate, Girlfriend, Friend, and Victim. Sara’s Classmate became convinced that his Girlfriend had some kind of sexual flirting with Victim. Therefore, with the help of Friend, he kidnapped Victim. Sara’s Classmate said that he wanted to kill Victim, and had a loaded gun. Though Friend was willing to participate in the kidnapping, Friend did not want to be an accomplice to murder, so he came up with a scheme to deceive Sara’s Classmate into thinking that Victim is already dead. I would like to think that my classmate would have come to his senses in time, and not actually carry out his murder threat, but I think it is very possible that, without Friend’s deception, Sara’s Classmate would have killed Victim.

The obvious parallels between this true story and Othello are Sara’s Classmate = Othello, Girlfriend = Desdemona, Friend = Iago, and Victim = Cassio. However, whereas Iago deceived Othello so that Desdemona and Cassio would die, Friend deceived Sara’s Classmate in order to save Victim’s life.

Though my classmate and I were not in the same English class, I know he also studied Othello in his English class because all of the 10th grade English classes at my high school studied Othello. I suppose it’s possible that in his English class they discussed whether or not it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona if she had been unfaithful, but … I doubt it.

We were classmates in theater class, and I definitely know that he studied Othello in our theater class because he performed a monologue from the play. Specifically, this monologue:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
[Kissing her]
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

Yes, it’s the monologue shortly before Othello kills Desdemona. When I was in that theater class, and saw my classmate perform this monologue multiple times, I had no idea that in a few years he was going to try to do something like this in real life. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he chose this monologue, and then later attempted to murder someone because of jealousy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Othello inspired him to perform kidnapping and attempted murder – if anything, I think the reverse is more likely, that he chose this monologue because he already had fantasies of doing something like this in real life. However, in English class, and even in theater class, there were opportunities to discuss whether Othello’s conduct would have been okay even if Desdemona were guilty, and those discussions, as far as I know, did not happen. And maybe, if that discussion did happen, my classmate may not have tried to imitate Othello.

The last time I had seen or read Othello was before my former classmate committed his crimes. This year, when I watched the play on stage, I was thinking of my former classmate quite a bit.

And my former classmate is not an isolated anomaly. At least one third of all women murdered in the United States are murdered by a male initmate partner, and that is not counting people like Cassio or Victim, who were suspected of being the women’s lovers, or attempted murders which did not result in death. I could not find statistics indicating how many of those murders were related to sexual jealousy, but I suspect it is a high percentage.

I am not opposed to reading or studying or performing Othello. On the contrary, I think it can be useful for provoking discussion. But, in my observation, the discussion of whether murder due to jealousy is ever justified usually does not happen. I certainly noticed no traces of that discussion around the production of the play I saw this summer.

Compare that to The Merchant of Venice. I studied the play in a college class, and my college class did not ignore the anti-semitism. On the contrary, the anti-semitism was one of the most discussed aspects of the play. And whenever there is a production or adaptation of The Merchant of Venice in the contemporary United States, the way the anti-semitism is addressed tends to be the focal point of the producer’s, the performers’, and the audience’s attention. I disagree with some of the common ways the anti-semitism is addressed, but at least it IS acknowledged and addressed, people aren’t silent about it. To a lesser extent, this is also true of the way readers, directors, actors, audiences, etc. treat the misogyny in Taming of the Shrew.

I do not think the play Othello itself is dangerous. I think ignoring the way the play tacitly supports murdering unfaithful wives (conditional on the wives being truly unfaithful, unlike Desdemona) is dangerous.

3 thoughts on “There Is a Big Problem with How We Talk about Othello

  1. I’m… Quite unfamiliar with this play. It wasn’t covered in my high school. But I can still agree with you now. I must say I lack much ability to actually comprehend that monologue without line by line explanations lol. But you’ve explained the context. 🙂

    One of the issues with murder in general in fiction often tends to be that it’s… Not as real, no one treats it like a real threat that translates to our lives. No one we actually know would MURDER (or attempt it), even suicide and other intense topics like perpetrating sexual violence, becoming addicted to substances, etc often feel outside the scope of what people imagine are real issues to address. In fiction, murder (if contemplated/done by a protagonist we sympathize with) simply “makes sense” in contexts where in real life the only thing that makes equal sense is feeling profoundly hurt – angry, betrayed, etc – murder just being an exaggeration of those feelings for added drama and a written plot that has “events” transpiring rather than only an internal conflict.

    I’m making broad generalizations here but. My impression is that “murder isn’t an option for someone who wronged you” isn’t treated as a PSA within the narratives of fiction I can recall right now off the top of my head.

    As you know, 9.5 months ago a close friend of mine murdered his wife. Yes it was over sexual jealousy. He also was suicidal and I tentatively believe the statistic that 2% of suicides are murder-suicides, and that the majority of those are motivated by a perverted sense of “justice”, usually sexual jealousy, while also in those 2% are parents murdering children out of perverted “mercy” and mass-murders of a variety of types, etc.

    On the exact same date, 3 years prior someone I’d met briefly on a few occasions, a friend of my brother’s, was murdered by her boyfriend. Sexual jealousy was not the cause according to any reports or statements by this murderer afterward. But still.

    I’m not even that separated from this murder-suicide that took place in a school where my cousin knows teachers who work there. A boy and a girl he dated so. Very likely sexual jealousy.

    Intimate partners murdering their wives and girlfriends hits close to home for me and I do think it’s important we acklowedge when discussing Othello just what the implications are. That it wouldn’t have been a tragedy if he’d killed the right/a guilty person, really? And unpacking what message is better to send people about how to react to someone having an affair.

    • I also cannot think about any fiction with a PSA ‘don’t murder people because of personal conflicts’ written with the idea that someone in the audience might actually go murder someone. It certainly did not occur to me in high school that my classmate might attempt murder shortly after graduation, and I doubt it occurred to any of our teachers either (including the theater teacher who glamorized Othello’s ‘love’ by claiming that Othello was a better symbol of romantic love than Romeo – I left that bit out of the OP to keep the length down as because I was not quite sure how to incorporate it – but in retrospect, I hella prefer having Romeo be the symbol of male romantic love, at least he never tries to hurt Juliet). Even though I have had a little contact with that theater teacher since graduation, I never mentioned my classmate’s crimes. I wonder how she would react if I pointed out that he had chosen that Othello monologue in class and, according to her own logic, he was acting in a very ‘romantic’ way when he attempted to kill Victim (though I will probably never get the opportunity to discuss this with her, and if I did, it would be a very awkward subject).

      And I think the fact that I now feel that someone in my life murdering someone else because of sexual jealousy is a real possibility is a lot of why I react to Othello a lot differently now that I did in high school. In high school, I wasn’t connecting the story to men killing people over jealousy in real life, I was connecting it to our English teacher’s Real Life Soap Opera which, as far as I know, did not contain any violence. When I saw the play this summer, I couldn’t stop myself from making the connection to (attempted) murder in real life.

  2. Pingback: Some Further Reflections on Love | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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