Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Teaching Othello in South Florida: Imagine Gen. Colin Powell Marries Mila Kunis; or, Shakespeare in a Multicultural Environment

            I had a choice between teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet (which I am familiar with from my undergraduate days) or Othello, and chose the latter, despite never having had taught it before. This particular English Lit Survey college class is made up completely of Hispanic- and African-Americans, both native and Haitian-American, and, once having established my own racial and tribal identity—semi-elderly white Jewish man, from New York City—we set to work.
            The tragic story line of Othello is fairly simple, since there is very little physical action or comedy to relieve the stifling, verbal tension of rumor and gossip which gradually encircles and chokes off the leading characters: a Moorish general, Othello, working to defend Venice from  Turkish attackers, meets, falls in love with, and marries, a young white girl, Desdemona, unbeknowest to her family. His “ancient,” (standard-bearer, major-domo, trusted right-hand-man), Iago, secretly hates him, and so plots with various other characters to accuse Desdemona of cuckolding him. Othello, highly skilled at war but little in the Machiavellian machinations of romance or court politicking, falls into his trap of plots and counter-plots; the play ends tragically and bloodily, in the finest Elizabethan style. Here is Othello’s closing speech:

                                    When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
                                    Speak of me as I am. …Then must you speak
                                    Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.
                                                                                    (V:2, ll. 357-360)

            I stress to the class that, while interracial dating and marriage are normal here in South Florida—and, I hope in other parts of America as well—it was not so in early 17th-Century England. Shakespeare, reacting to the Age of Exploration, when Englishmen returned to the home island with all manner of new and unheard-of plants, animals, and humans, chose a Moor as his leading character, not only to explore the issue of racism, but also to introduce an air of exoticity into his play. I briefly mention his other play dealing with the presence of the Mysterious Other, The Merchant of Venice, as well as Christopher Marlowe’s “Barabbas, the Jewe” in The Jewe of Malta (1589-90), which, if anything, is far more racist and bloody than Shakespeare’s play, which gave, at least, some dimensionality and compassion to Shylock.
            It is significant that modern critics suggest that, perhaps, Othello was not an African; he may have been an Arab, which would lay upon our comprehension an even more significant layer of cultural differentness, given the particular position of Muslims (or Arab Christians) in both American and world culture and society.
            What do we learn from Othello, as an older man (even older, given the life expectancy in Shakespeare’s day—if one lived to be fifty, that was considered “old”) married to a young woman, laying aside the racial differences? Consider, I tell them, the possibility of Gen. Colin Powell married to Mila Kunis—a fantasy, to be sure, but a necessary cultural touchstone for them. We learn from the play that this is no mere spring-autumn romance; indeed, Desdemona herself states that she pursued Othello:

That I did love the Moor to live with him, 
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world: my heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord: 
I saw Othello's visage in his mind, 
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. 
                                                            (I, iii, ll. 248-254)

            As for Iago’s treachery, the text gives no hint as to why Othello gave him the lesser promotion of ancient, favoring rather an untried, bookish soldier, Cassio, with the position of lieutenant. I tell the class to compare Iago with any back-stabbing ex-friend they may have ever known, who will ignore anyone’s feelings or fortunes, so long as they get what they want. Sadly, this hidden enemy will play the friend, burrowing into one’s personal life and learning both one’s secrets and hidden weaknesses, and waiting to strike when one’s defenses are down.

            The greatness of Shakespeare, added to the challenge of communicating his 16th-Century diction, is that his concerns are universal. He lived during the age of a queen who was surrounded by enemies known and unknown, when men willingly went to war over their faith, even over so petty a matter as to whether the church communion table stood in the front or to the side of the sanctuary. We Americans have no state church, but we are still, for good or ill, the inheritors of English style, custom, and literature. It is both an honor and challenge for me to convey the eternal truths of Western Civilization to these eager and searching minds.