Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Moor, the Villain, and Chastity Slandered

14. Othello by William Shakespeare

As I mentioned in my review of Titus Andronicus, reading that play has deepened my understanding of this one. Aaron the Moor is split in two here, into the noble Christian Moor Othello and the manipulative, evil atheist Iago. As I mentioned, Aaron's race provides him with a motive for his evildoing, either the racist implication that the 'Other' operates outside of the moral realm, or his own resentful, psychological response to this racial construction. Neither of these reasons can justify Iago's villainy, but they can play a role in Othello's self-image and willingness to believe that Desdemona is unfaithful to such as him.

I found Iago's various motivations to add to the psychological complexity of the character; my professor seems to suggest that his actions stem from a spurned homosocial affinity for Othello, while I see where that's coming from in the text, I still have a more traditional idea of Iago as someone who manipulates for manipulation's sake, a psychopath if you will. He messes with every single other character in the play, whether or not it is relevant to his revenge on Othello. Although he professes feelings for Desdemona, he's willing to sacrifice her life for the sake of his machinations, and a closer bond with Othello, but I think Iago could have foreseen Othello's regret and suicide. We know that even before the play begins, Iago has been playing matchmaker for both Roderigo and Othello, and probably planning to reveal Desdemona's elopement with Othello to her father the whole time. He shows how a single malicious person can ruin many lives, a horrifying thought if there ever was one.

Desdemona in the play is the Lucrece-esque victim, the representative of Chastity, whose honor is not physically assaulted, but violated through slander. This seems to be a theme to a greater or lesser degree in every early modern work I've been reading, and an idea I've been struggling with. The threat against Chastity seemed to invade from every angle and in order to be a heroine, a woman had to embody Chastity. Yet why are women's relationships with their would-be rapists, in this case literal murderer, painted as romantic love stories?

This is an age-old theme, battered women who stay with their tormentors are unfortunately still too common today, my friend was explaining that women think these men will "change" for them, they want to be the special one he changes for. I have never subscribed to this fairy tale and besides finding it appalling, don't fully comprehend the motivations behind it. A self-esteem boost, a challenge, a feeling of moral superiority...I used to love Beauty and the Beast, but I'm the last woman who would ever try to tame him. I'm sure that was part of Desdemona's attraction to Othello though.

Back to Othello, it turns out that Chastity is a matter of appearance just as much as black skin, and slanders against either are equally fatal to individuals and society. In the meantime, don't fall in love with the Beast, because his perception of his own inferiority will be taken out on you.

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