The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

Deconstructing Othello

Browsing through a second-hand book shop recently, I chanced upon
a New Penguin paperback edition of William Shakespeare’s Othello, edited by Kenneth
Muir
, a Shakespearean scholar. I have the Oxford Complete Works and have read the play a few times. What
intrigued me about the New Penguin edition, however, were a student’s notes
inked throughout it with often indecipherable and frequently puerile, labored
penmanship (meaning in mixed block letters and cursive, a sure sign that the
student “texts” more than he writes). But enough of it was legible
that I could take the measure of the student’s mind and what he was taught to
focus on in the play. The most significant comment was scrawled on the title
page:
“othello & desdemonda oposits because not know his own
culture.” (sic)
“His own culture”? That remark moved me to investigate what
the student might have thought of the characters of Othello the Moor and
Desdemona. Scholars have not agreed on the ethnic character of Othello. Various
covers
of other editions
of the play feature coal-black, Numidian faces in North
African dress, or brown Arabic or Egyptian faces, and even bearded white faces
in European dress. Othello, a professional soldier, whatever his race, has been
retained by the Venetians to fight the invading Turks. For centuries, Europeans
referred to anyone coming from any part of the Middle East and Northern Africa
as a “Moor,” regardless of the race. In stage and film productions of Othello,
the title character has been played with varying success by white and black
actors alike.
In most of the other covers of Othello,
Desdemona, Othello’s wife, is usually depicted as a fragile-looking blonde
woman, the daughter of a Venetian senator. When I was able to decipher the
student’s marginal comments, I concluded that he had been told by his
instructor in class to read and think of the play in terms of race determining
one’s culture, and not in terms of its principal theme, which is the
destructive forces of jealousy and the evil of Iago, who hates Othello and plots
to destroy the happy relationship between Othello and Desdemona. 
The deterministic premise, that culture is a kind of genetic
phenomenon that governs the contents of one’s mind and one’s values, is a
Marxist product of the Critical Theory School of examining or
“reading” literature, and has become a staple of political
correctness. Formerly, the “reading” was an effort to identify and
elucidate innate, ideological “class” distinctions. In this instance,
it is a matter of identifying and elucidating innate, ideological
“racial” differences, with race creating irreconcilable conflicts
between whites and blacks, with the bias in favor of “black” culture
as a “victim” of white cultural “imperialism.”
However, there is nothing “Islamic” or
“Muslim” about Othello. In fact, the villain, Iago, an officer in
Othello’s army, is not motivated by racial bigotry, either, but by a burning
hatred of the good for being the good. But students are taught to search for
and find such “subtexts” and “signifiers” in their Marxist
“critical readings.”
This kind of nonsense has been taught in public high school and
university literature courses for decades. Critical Theory studies have also
now shifted to examining the conflicts between Western and Islamic culture, and
have invaded middle schools, as well. Numerous are the stories of how children,
teens, and college students are being brainwashed in British, European and
American schools to “depreciate” Western culture as an arbitrary
imposition and as the “oppressor” of Islamic and other primitive
cultures.
Interestingly, the student made no marginal comments on the second
half of Othello, when Iago’s
insidious plot begins to advance rapidly to its tragic ending. This is in Act
III, Scene 4, when Desdemona cannot find the handkerchief Othello gave her and
Othello begins to suspect that something is amiss. Just before that Act, the
student made a brief comment that while Desdemona was in her social milieu and
had lots of “contacts,” Othello was outside his “natural”
Moorish milieu and had no social contacts.
Thus, according to a Critical Theory analysis, a method obviously
imbibed uncritically by the hapless student, Othello was “victimized”
by “white” culture and can’t be held responsible for smothering
Desdemona to death in a state of angry jealousy, as Iago had plotted to happen
by appropriating the handkerchief and planting it on Desdemona’s alleged lover.
This is what Othello’s “natural” culture demanded of him, so his
action is beyond judgment.
It is likely the earliest and most notorious dramatic presentation
of an Islamic “honor killing” – that is, if Shakespeare even had any
knowledge of that aspect of Islamic “culture,” which is highly
doubtful.
Shakespeare would probably worry his goatee in confusion if he
ever read a feminist interpretation of Othello
(or of any of his other plays). Such as this
one
, penned by an anonymous “teacher,” to wit:
Iago’s desire for revenge on Othello is, in part, dictated by his
view of women as possessions. He believes that ‘it is thought abroad that
‘twixt my sheets/He’s done my office’ (I.3.381-2), suggesting that Othello has
slept with his wife Emilia. It could be argued, however, that Iago exhibits
little love for his wife, insulting her in public and ultimately killing her
himself. It is simply the thought that ‘the lusty Moor/hath leaped into my
seat’ (II.1.286-7) which drives him mad, the thought that Othello has used a
possession that belongs to him. Compounding this theory is the fact that Iago
refers to his wife metaphorically in these two instances: she is his ‘office’
and his ‘seat’; she is objectified and deprived of her humanity.
Or, consider these test questions from another feminist
site
:
How is Desdemona’s relationship with her father explored with in
the opening Act?

To what extent are the female characters stereotyped: Desdemona the idealised
wife, Emilia the nagging wife and Bianca the doting mistress?
Why does the text focus on such powerless stereotypes?
How is female sexuality explored in the play?
What sexual identities are offered to the female characters?
What sexual freedom is given to the male characters?
What social structures are presented to maintain patriarchal
control?

What happens to women when they cross or are suspected of crossing societal
expectations of submission and faithfulness?
To what extent must Desdemona and Emelia both die in order for
patriarchal control to be restored?
So, Othello, when did you stop beating your wife? A sharp
courtroom prosecutor might have asked that leading question of him. But I don’t
think Shakespeare had the restoration of “patriarchal control” in
mind as he composed the plot of Othello.
When Critical Theory English and literature teachers ask their students to
plunge their mental shovels into Shakespeare in search of buried gender, class,
or racial treasure, all the students can wind up doing is waving their spades in
empty air over an abyss as deep as the Grand Canyon. That’s when they’ll make
something up or just parrot the teachers’ political agenda.
Shakespeare is not for “exploring” relationships or
sexuality or driving a Critical Theory bulldozer to demolish his “social
structures.”
In my lifetime, I’ve seen Shakespeare done in a multitude of
interpretations and styles:
In early
or late 20th
century modern dress
, in 1930’s Art Deco complete with airplanes
and jeeps, and in expected Shakespearean and Elizabethan settings.  In a College of William & Mary production
of Othello (directed by a feminist),
which was set in South Africa, the principal military characters were garbed in
jungle camouflage and carried guns, while the whole cast spoke their lines into
cell phones, with Desdemona, Emelia, and Bianca appearing in miniskirts and
pantsuits. (I walked out after the first act, as did half the audience, so I
don’t know if Desdemona appeared in the final act in a Victoria’s Secret swim
suit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she had.)
Who can forget West Side Story, loosely
based on Romeo and Juliet, which
pitted two street gangs against each other? An Australian production of MacBeth features warring street
gangs in Melbourne.
The problem with Shakespeare is that his plots and themes, while
oft times deterministic in and of themselves and needing no extraneous
political or modern interpretative overlays, were more or less original or were
timeless adaptations of plays that antedated Shakespeare. (Kenneth Muir, in his
Introduction to the student’s edition of Othello,
reveals that Shakespeare found the basic plot in an anthology of plays by
Giraldi Cinthio, from 1565, when Shakespeare was one year old.)
Actually, it’s not Shakespeare’s problem. The problem lies in our
culture’s esthetic and moral bankruptcy. Political correctness and Critical
Theory suffocate any attempt to either discuss Shakespeare in objective terms, especially
in academia, or they discourage writers from trying to best the Bard at his own
magnificent and prolific game.


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2 Comments

  1. Edward Cline

    I could have also mentioned that the primary purpose of Critical Theory teaching is to "deconstruct" or sabotage one's cognitive faculties. Once that is accomplished, then deuces are wild and Othello and other literary works can be interpreted any way one wishes, no matter how absurd.

  2. Michael Neibel

    It looks like Critical Theory English is an epistemology designed to destroy any rational epistemology.

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