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.

Review: Cymbeline at Marin Shakespeare

Tommy Gorrebeeck as Posthumus, and Stella Heath as Imogen in Marin Shakespeare's Cymbeline

Tommy Gorrebeeck as Posthumus, and Stella Heath as Imogen in Marin Shakespeare’s Cymbeline

I want to see every Shakespeare play performed live, so when I learned that Marin Shakespeare was putting on Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s obscure plays, I decided to go. What did I think?

The Play & Adaptation

Cymbeline is Shakespeare’s third longest play, and not as good as the two plays which are even longer, Hamlet and Coriolanus. I’ve heard that practically every production of Cymbeline liberally cuts lines, and since this production is only about two hours long, it is no exception.

The most famous part of the play is the song “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” which is sung by some outcasts as they bury an innocent youth who had been wronged while alive. It might be the best song to appear in any Shakespeare play. I like this Youtube version.

This production takes the music and runs with it – I lost track of how many songs had been added. Aside from “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun”, they were generally light-hearted and simple, and were both enjoyable and made it easier to get into the story.

There are some lines which had clearly been added in order to clarify some of the denser parts of the play. For example, after Iachimo gives a long and ornate speech about what Posthumus has been doing in Italy, he pauses, and sums it up by saying ‘He’s having sex with prostitutes’. It made me laugh. There was also a convoluted speech where Belarius was revealing who his two ‘boys’ true identities, and then he came out and said ‘okay, there are two boys, and four names. Get it?’.

All in all, the plot was fairly easy to follow, which considering that this might be the most convoluted plot of any Shakespeare play, is no small accomplishment. For that alone this production is a success. It is also done as a slight parody of itself which. Considering how ridiculous the story is, maximizing the humor might be the most entertaining way to do this play.

Costume Design

The color theme for the costumes seemed to be blue, with the help of some greens and purples. It certainly made the Romans/Italians stand out with their bright red clothing, which is fitting, since they were foreigners in Britain. Though the Roman military was dressed like ancient Romans, most of the other characters were dressed in Renaissance/Tudor style.

Imogen’s dress (which is not the same as the dress as the dress in the press photo above – those press photos must have been taken before the costume designer finished her work) was lovely, with ribbons trailing from her waist. I think the ribbons helped her seem more innocent, which is exactly what’s needed.

The queen had a very appropriate dress, being stiff and straight, which formed a contrast with Imogen’s flowing dress.

Cloten’s costume had plaid running down his chest on one side, which made him look both snobbish and clueless. The headband also helped identify his head after it was separated from the rest of his body.

The one costume which didn’t work for me was the Goddess – rather than getting the sense that she was a divine being, she just seemed out of place.

Set Design

The diagonal ramps with multiple entrances/exits worked very well at positioning multiple actors in different levels and offering many staging options. The grey + camouflage look also made the set very flexible, so we could believe that it was King Cymbeline’s palace or caves in the wilderness or a battlefield, depending on what was needed.

Lighting & Sound Design

Since I saw an afternoon performance, the lighting was designed by the sun and various nearby trees.


I must applaud Tommy Gorrebeeck. I didn’t even realize he was playing Posthumus and Cloten, even though at one point Cloten puts on Posthumus’ clothes until I checked the cast list. Sure, the wig helped, but that wouldn’t have stopped me from figuring it out if Tommy Gorrebeeck weren’t a fine actor on top of that.

Aside from that, the actors who stood out the most to me were Jed Parsario (Pisanio), Debi Durst (Cornelius), and Davern Wright (Iachimo). What all of their performances have in common is that they are good at comedy. Jed Parsario had good timing and was quick to react to the other actors. Though Cornelius is a minor character, Debi Durst made him into one of the most memorable by being the sardonic Greek chorus commenting on the ridiculousness of what was going on. When reading Cymbeline long ago, it never occurred to me that Iachimo could be a comic character, but now I must admit that Iachimo can be funny.

Aside from the comedic aspects, there was a striking silent moment where, on the battlefield, Posthumus (Tommy Gorrebeeck) and Iachimo (Davern Wright) recognize it other. It added gravitas.

The performer who did not stand out is Stella Heath as Imogen. I could understand her easily enough, and considering that this is Cymbeline, being comprehensible means that your performance is at least OK. However, Imogen, as the most important character in the play, can be a lot better than ‘OK’. That said, this production is slanted towards comedy, and Imogen lends herself to tugging heartstrings, not making people laugh. Still, I get feel that, while Stella Heath’s performance is adequate, it could have been more.


Seeing Marin Shakespeare’s Cymbeline was well worth my time and money. Cymbeline is rarely performed, and I suspect performances which are actually easy to follow and entertaining are even rarer. It’s not a great play, but this time, it is fun.

If, like me, you don’t have a car, fear not – this show is within walking distance of the San Rafael Transit Center, which has buses running to San Francisco, El Cerrito Del Norte BART station, and Santa Rosa.

Rethinking Romeo & Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is, of course, the iconic ‘love story’ in our culture. But now I think it’s appeal comes from something other than passionate love…

Meanwhile, Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is the most popular Chinese-language novel primarily about a romantic relationship.

When I first saw someone suggest that Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is to the Chinese-speaking world what Romeo and Juliet is to the English-speaking world, I disagreed because the stories are so different. Sure, both are about a passionately romantic relationship, are melodramatic, and have noteworthy sword fights. But the characters and storylines are quite different.

However, after seeing that Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ gets referenced in Chinese-language media the same way that Romeo and Juliet gets referenced in English-language media, I am starting to think that the people who compare them have a point.

And that made me wonder … why Romeo and Juliet? Why Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ? Why not one of the zillion other stories of passionate love out there?

I’m starting to think it’s not so much because the characters are so passionately in love with each other. I’m starting to think it’s because of the characters’ relationship with their societies.

In Romeo and Juliet, the main characters are going against Verona’s social norms. In Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ, the main characters are going against Chinese social norms. Presumably, the characters are resisting their societies’ values because their love for each other is that strong (though the main character in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ, having previously been homeless, also seems to think that since society failed him him, he doesn’t need to listen to society).

Every society I’m familiar with has a set of rules and taboos about what kinds of relationships are acceptable. Many of these rules and taboos are irrational, and make a lot of people suffer. Yet many people still feel obliged to comply. I think Romeo and Juliet and Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ are so iconic not because the characters are so passionately in love with each other, but because they are brave enough to resist arbitrary social rules and pursue their own personal happiness.

Of course, while Romeo and Juliet are breaking their society’s rules, they aren’t breaking our society’s rules, so it’s okay. While some socially conservative people don’t approve of what the characters in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ do, most people in the Chinese-speaking world think it’s okay (at least, the young people think it’s okay). If the characters were breaking the rules in a more radical way, they would be too dangerous to go mainstream.

Since Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ has never been published in any European language, the only way to read the novel in English is this fan translation. There are actually some interesting asexual themes in the story. I might write some posts analyzing the asexual content, if I think people would actually read them.