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.
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.