Archive | May, 2018

Gender and Othello

15 May

When I am teaching Shakespearean drama I often wish that I was able to treat my students to multiple performances, each offering a different perspective on the play.  Why?  Because each casting decision, each dramatic decision offers insight into the play’s enduring relevance and values.

The value of performance is underscored in a recent review about a production of Othello in which the eponymous protagonist was recast as a lesbian.  If we view Othello’s characterisation as the Moor as a mere shorthand for communicating his difference, the re-imagining of Othello as a lesbian does not change much.  After all, on this reading, lesbian and Moor are both equally effective synonyms for ‘Other’.  If, however, Othello’s characterisation is about more than difference, if the colour of Othello’s skin is as central to Othello as Shylock’s religion is in The Merchant of Venice, then maybe recasting Othello as a lesbian matters greatly.   Maybe it changes everything.

The author of the review is of the view that changing the gender (let alone the orientation) of Othello matters greatly:

“In changing the gender of Othello – making the character … a woman who has excelled in what is clearly very much a man’s world – the stakes are raised, and the evening speaks to present-day workplace politics. Iago is the “ancient” who feels resentment at a woman’s success…”

Her view, it seems, is that the shift in characterisation modernises the text such that it reflects the context in which we live, offering a certain universality to the underlying interpersonal conflict.  This would be an interesting idea to discuss with my class – I what they see in Othello and how closely this understanding is linked to the colour of his skin.

I would also be keen to discuss the following:

  • Characterisation of Othello tips the gender balance in the play as three of the four key characters are now female.  If Othello is recast as woman, is Iago (the only male) recast as ‘Other’.  If so, how might this change how audiences view him?
  • Does the gender and/or the sexual orientation of Othello impact his effectiveness of a tragic hero?  Why/why not?
  • How does exploring the downfall of a woman and/or lesbian play into current social narratives regarding gender and sexuality?
  • Is it a feminist statement to recast Othello as a woman?  Explain.

The ‘Good Bloke’ Narrative

14 May

A recent conversation with students about Othello raised an interesting question:  If we view Othello as offering a window into the protagonist’s domestic world, then do we also (given the play’s ending) have to view Othello as a perpetrator of domestic violence?

The question is a good one in that it demonstrates critical engagement with the text studied.  It should also be valued as a way of grappling with the play’s continued relevance.  Another way of asking this question might be: Do we value Othello for the way it sheds light on the problems plaguing domestic relationships?

This understanding of Othello as an abusive husband was almost immediately countered by another student who, instead, perceived Othello as a ‘good guy’ corrupted by the machinations of Iago.  Othello may have killed his wife, argued this student, but it wasn’t really his fault as his rage was fuelled by Iago’s manipulative conduct.

The ensuing discussion, I feel, could really have benefited from students reading Clementine Ford’s article ‘The problem with the “good bloke” narrative’.  In this article Ford discusses the inadequacy of a system where males who murder their loved ones are cast as ‘good blokes’ and, in doing so, the gravity of their conduct is diminished.  In the words of Ford:

“Turning murderers into ‘Good Blokes’ only reinforces an underlying community belief that there are circumstances in which men (and it’s always men, because nobody defends women who murder children or describes them as ‘awesome’) can be driven to this kind of response. That indeed the pressures of being a man can be so intense and suffocating that they feel they have no choice but to end the lives of everyone they’re ‘responsible’ for.”

In light of this article, I have a number of questions for my students:

  • Does/how does the characterisation of Othello as a ‘Good Bloke’ devalue women?
  • Is Othello an anti-feminist play?  Why?
  • Is Othello an anti-male play?  Why?
  • What is Shakespeare seeking to achieve through his representation of men and women?
  • What narratives about masculinity and femininity is Shakespeare offering in Othello?
  • Why is it acceptable to perceive a literary domestic abuser, but not a real life domestic violence perpetrator, as a ‘Good Bloke’?
  • At what point does/should personal responsibility begin?