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Shakespeare and Social Justice Ideology: Othello Is Not About Racism

(William Salter’s Othello’s Lamentation)

Unfortunately, I don’t think it simply comes down to the location of a portrait. In recent years, social justice ideology has infiltrated many of our institutions, especially the universities and, particularly, in the humanities.”

A few years ago, students at the University of Pennsylvania removed a large Shakespeare portrait from a staircase that students and faculty members in the English department walk by every day. They then, “put up a photograph of Audre Lorde, the black feminist poet who died in 1992.” The students, “said the action reflects their interest in reading a more diverse range of voices than has been the case in the past and sending a message that study of literature isn’t just about the traditionally revered authors.”1

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with reading a more diverse range of voices. Moreover, I cannot read minds, so I cannot comment on the motives of students who moved the portrait of Shakespeare to a less central location in the English department. As an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania who remembers climbing the stairwell to classes in the English department and seeing Shakespeare’s portrait in so central a location as a testament to his status as perhaps the greatest playwright in history, I do find it regrettable. But that’s just an opinion on where to put a portrait. If it all simply came down to the location of a portrait, I’d be content to have a laugh and move on.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it simply comes down to the location of a portrait. In recent years, social justice ideology has infiltrated many of our institutions, especially the universities and, particularly, in the humanities. On its face, this should be a good thing. Who could object to “social justice”? Well, there are many reasons to do so. In general, it is not “social justice” in principle to which we should object but the various ways in which it has been implemented as a matter of ideology.

There are so many examples that it is hard to know where to begin. But I will direct our focus to one: a tendency to read classic works of literature so politically that we end up grossly misreading the text. 

Here’s an example.

A couple of years ago, I attended a production of Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. In the playbill, director Ron Daniels and lead actor Faran Tahir attributed “Othello’s identity as a Moor” as the, “key to the journey of Iago.” Apparently, “[r]acism fires Iago’s hatred, driving the action and leading to destruction.” “[Iago’s] is a very complex personality,” says Daniels. “It’s profoundly racist, profoundly bitter, profoundly class-conscious, and disaffected. He’s as much of an outsider as Othello.” Similarly, Tahir states: “Iago never says, ‘I hate Othello’—he says ‘I hate the Moor’—and I think there’s a distinction to be made there. It’s not just about this man, it’s about racism. It’s about everything that this man represents.”2

Daniels goes even further: “To say that [Iago] is satanic—that to me is not quite right. He is a human being who is resentful—resentful for all the opportunities that he doesn’t have. And in a strange way, his resentfulness, his bitterness, creates the monster that Othello becomes.” In addition, “Tahir questions the idea that any human can be objectively wicked. ‘Nobody gets up in the morning—not even Hitler or Osama bin Laden—and says, ‘Today I’m going to be really evil.’ I think they think that they are absolutely justified in doing what they do. But the world sees it as evil. The complexity is the beauty of it. Making him just a devil—that’s not interesting.” 

This is fine, even illuminating, insofar as it relates to the intricacies of moral ambivalence, moral rectitude, and moral rationalization in the development of complex characters. It becomes much less interesting, however, to the extent it precludes an objective assessment of whether a character is, in fact, evil. Macbeth is a fascinating and complex character, but one is hard pressed not to hold him accountable for the murders he commits. It seems fair to say, then, that the comments by Daniels and Tahrir reflect a 21st century ideological obsession with identity politics in literary interpretation, distorting the play by filtering it through the lens of social justice presentism.

Harold Bloom offers a more thought-provoking, and less ideological, critique that captures a more universal and timeless conception of Iago’s daemonic spirit of satanic genius. In Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, he writes:

“Passed over, and so nullified, Iago determines to convert his own sadomasochism into a counter-triumphalism, one that will commandeer his commander, and then transform the god of his earlier worship into a degradation of godhood. The chaos that Othello rightly feared if he ceased to love Desdemona has been Iago’s natural element since Cassio’s promotion. From that chaos, Iago rises as a new Demiurge, a master of uncreation.”3

Bloom notes that ,“Milton’s Satan owes so much to Iago that we can be tempted to read the Christian Fall of Adam into Othello’s catastrophe, and to find Lucifer’s decline into Satan a clue to Iago’s conception.”4 Yet Bloom is not entirely in disagreement with Tahir. He’s just more artful and penetrating in his insight: 

“But though Shakespeare’s Moor has been baptized, Othello is no more a Christian drama than Hamlet was a doctrinal tragedy of guilt, sin, and pride. Iago playfully invokes a ‘Divinity of Hell,’ and yet he is no mere diabolist. He is War Everlasting (as Goddard sensed) and inspires in me the same uncanny awe and fright that Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden arouses each time I reread Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985).”5

Indeed, war is Iago’s religion: 

“Othello is a Christian, by conversion; Iago’s religion is war, war everywhere—the streets, in the camp, in his own abyss. Total war is a religion, whose best literary theologian I have cited already, Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s frightening Blood Meridian. The Judge imitates Iago by expounding a theology of the will, whose ultimate expression is war, against everyone. Iago says that he has never found a man who knew how to love himself, which means that self-love is the exercise of the will in murdering others. That is Iago’s self-education in the will, since he does not start out with the clear intention of murder. In the beginning was a sense of having been outraged by a loss of identity, accompanied by the inchoate desire to be revenged upon the god Iago had served.”6

On the subject of religion, former Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn thus misleads us when he says: “When Ron Daniels came to me and said he wanted to do Othello and that he had a Pakistani-American actor, Faran Tahir, to play Othello, I thought it was an inspired idea.” He adds: “[a]fter all, the part is written as a Moor, and to play Othello as a Muslim in a Christian society interested me greatly.” The problem with this “inspired idea” is that Othello is a Christian by conversion.

This is all perhaps to be expected in an age of obsession with social justice ideologies like intersectionality and group-based identity politics. Indeed, it appears Daniels succumbs to what Harold Bloom calls “the recent French fashion of denying the self,” undervaluing “how subtle Shakespeare’s art can be.” Bloom further writes: 

“Othello indeed may seem to prompt James Calderwoods’ Lacanian observation:

Instead of a self-core discoverable at the center of his being, Othello’s ‘I am’ seems a kind of internal repertory company, a ‘we are.’

If Othello, at the play’s start, or at its close, is only the sum of his self-descriptions, then indeed he could be judged a veritable picnic of souls. But his third-person relation to his own images of self testifies not to a ‘we are’ but to a perpetual romanticism at seeing and describing himself. To some degree, he is a self-enchanter, as well as the enchanter of Desdemona. Othello desperately wants and needs to be the protagonist of a Shakespearean romance, but alas he is the hero-victim of this most painful Shakespearean domestic tragedy of blood. John Jones makes the fine observation that Lear in the Quarto version is a romance figure, but then is revised by Shakespeare into the tragic being of the Folio text. As Iago’s destined gull, Othello presented Shakespeare with enormous problems in representation. How are we to believe in the essential heroism, largeness, and loving nature of so catastrophic a protagonist?”7

One hopes Harold Broom is right when he writes: “Othello’s character has suffered the assaults of T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis and their various followers, but fashions in Shakespeare criticism always vanish, and the noble Moor has survived his denigrators.”8 Indeed, in summing up the core of Othello’s character, Bloom writes: “Yet Shakespeare has endowed Othello with the authentic mystery of being a radically flawed hero, an Adam too free to fall. In some respects, Othello is Shakespeare’s most wounding representation of male vanity and fear of female sexuality, and so of the male equation that makes the fear of cuckoldry and the fear of mortality into a single dread.”9 It’s an alternative interpretation that I’m not entirely willing to accept, but perhaps more insightful than obscuring Othello’s complexity in the service of advancing social justice ideology by wrongly depicting him as a victim of racism.

Jonathan David Church is an economist and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and he has contributed to a variety of publications, including Quillette and Areo Magazine.

Endnotes

  1. Scott Jaschik, “Making a Point by Moving Shakespeare’s Portrait,” Inside Higher Education, December 14, 2016. See: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/12/14/students-penn-remove-portrait-shakespeare.
  2. Asides, Issue 4, 2015/2016 Season, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Othello, p. 17. See also: https://www.shakespearetheatre.org/newsroom/shakespeare-theatre-company-presents-othello/.
  3. Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, The Berkeley Publishing Group (New York, NY), 1998, p. 465.
  4.  Ibid, p. 437.
  5.  Ibid.
  6. Ibid, p. 455.
  7. Ibid, pp. 446-447.
  8.  Ibid, p. 448.
  9. Ibid.

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