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.