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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: March ::
Re: Othello in Aleppo
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0734  Friday, 30 March 2001

[1]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Sunday, 25 Mar 2001 21:22:11 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0697 Re: Othello in Aleppo

[2]     From:   Clifford Stetner <
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        Date:   Mon, 26 Mar 2001 19:25:57 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0697 Re: Othello in Aleppo

[3]     From:   Graham Bradshaw <
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        Date:   Wed, 28 Mar 2001 04:36:46 +0900
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0697 Re: Othello in Aleppo


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Sunday, 25 Mar 2001 21:22:11 -0500
Subject: 12.0697 Re: Othello in Aleppo
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0697 Re: Othello in Aleppo

I wonder if Shakespeare thought of Aleppo as a wild frontier town, like
Dodge City--or Beirut. It's a distant, exotic place, where Venetians and
Turks cross paths, and settle scores with vigilante justice. It might be
called revenge, except that Othello smites the Turk for the sake of an
unnamed Venetian, and he associates the Turk's beating the Venetian with
his traducing the state. Othello responds to a doubly anti-Venetian
insult.  Given the provocation, I don't think his act can quite be
called murder.  Manslaughter maybe. But from Othello's point of view,
the Turk's having beaten a Venetian and traduced the state gives
Othello's killing of the Turk an aspect of justice. Not fully objective
justice, but maybe that's something Othello, significantly, does not
quite comprehend.

With the story of this act he sums up his life, in a way, a life which
has reached its professional apogee in his role as a higher-order
bodyguard to Venetians, safeguarding Venice against the Turks. The Turk
in this case seems malignant just because he's a Turk, though it's not
quite clear that no further individual malignity is involved. He does
seem pretty obnoxious, and from Othello's point of view to deserve what
he gets. Lodovico's "O bloody period" seems clearly to refer to
Othello's end and not the Turk's.

The justice of smiting the Turk comes not only from his aggressive
acts.  It comes from his malignity, and concurrently from his being a
turbanned and circumcised Turk, an active conventional enemy of Venice
and an infidel.  Othello might be called a social climber, but that
would not sum up his genuine, I would say, idealism about Venice: an
idealism partly symbolized by his trust of Iago, but moreso by his
idealizing of Desdemona. Othello is climbing a pyramid of civilization,
which has several up-and-down dimensions. One is the difference between
dark and light. Othello may be darker than a Turk. He accepts the
general view--"probal to thinking"--that black cannot be beautiful. He
can't change his blackness, but through personal nobility he can make
himself "far more fair than black." Another dimension is the difference
between pagan and Christian, and a third, related one, the difference
between savage and civilized.

Othello, despite his "royal seige", in relation to Venice comes from the
savage bottom and is climbing toward the civilized top. Venice needs him
because the top has its own deficiencies: no generals like Othello, too
many "curled darlings." His savage, pagan side may come out in the
strength of his jealousy, as it comes out in his swearing a "capable and
wide revenge." The "Propontic" rhetoric entirely forgets the value of
Christian forgiveness. Then, reverting, or trying to, to the role of
"civilized governor," he tries to make his killing of Desdemona not
revenge but justice: "It is the cause." Shakespeare layers in his
Christianity as well:
"I would not kill thy soul."

Desdemona does not make too heavy a rhetorical point of Christianity,
but she acts in a way that associates her love for Othello with
Christian love.  Emilia calls for revenge on husbands, and Desdemona
responds, "God me such usage send/Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad
mend!" She dies denying Othello's crime, which leads him to say "She's
like a liar gone to burning hell." He doesn't quite get Christianity.
Not that all Venetians do either; but Desdemona does.

As Desdemona stands for all that is best about Venice and its Christian
civilization, Othello in killing her shows his lack of faith in all he
held most dear, in all that was sacred to him. His faithlessness has
made him into an infidel, who in his own eyes, in killing Desdemona,
acted like the malignant Turk. His killing himself is his last act, as
he conceives it, of pro-Venetian justice.

David Bishop

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Mon, 26 Mar 2001 19:25:57 -0500
Subject: 12.0697 Re: Othello in Aleppo
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0697 Re: Othello in Aleppo

Graham Bradshaw

> Othello speaks as though his murder of the Turk was in some way just,
> and even admirable. But it's difficult or impossible to see how this is
> the case, and neither of the "two noble Venetians" who are present sees
> this case that way. "Oh,bloody period", says Lodovico; "All that is
> spoke, is marr'd", says Gratiano. I must say, I wouldn't like to have
> been stabbed every time I have lamented what is politely called American
> foreign policy.

But, in the absence of any stage direction other than the "dies" four
lines later, the "thus" at the end of Othello's speech indicates that he
stabs himself here, which would be the act to which Lodovico and
Gratiano react in horror. Your interpretation requires at least a double
reading of the lines.

I agree that the syntax leaves the identity of the circumcised dog
ambiguous. Might this not be a dying confession to the Venetians: ie the
Turk only beat him, but I smote him dead?  Perhaps Aleppo is Cyprus,
Othello is the Venetian and Iago is the turbaned Turk.

And whatever your complaints with Turkey, should all Turkish people be
punished for the acts of their governors?

Clifford

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Graham Bradshaw <
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Date:           Wed, 28 Mar 2001 04:36:46 +0900
Subject: 12.0697 Re: Othello in Aleppo
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0697 Re: Othello in Aleppo

> Don Bloom wrote
>
> >Good point about circumcision. Vasectomy may be
> >reversible, but circumcision was not, at least not that
> >I know of.

"Good point" is a good Grimm pun. So far as reversibility is concerned,
it's very dodgy after vasectomy, and quite impossible after
circumcision.

Alexander Pope gets terrific (non-PC) mileage out of the
non/un/ir-reversibility of being cut shorter, in one of his most
atrocious satirical jibes at the publisher Curll. Curll, to his credit,
was sympathetic to Judaism, unlike the Catholic Alexander. And Curll's
logo (or, then, boardsign), as publisher, was a pair of scissors! So
Pope explains this, very much in the spirit of those moderns schooled in
the hermeneutics of suspicion. Curll, says Pope, was so sympathetic to
the Jews that he decided to be circumsized himself, but the operation
went SO terribly wrong that  "not even" the Jews would have him--hence
the scissors...

Who (as John Aubrey asks, in another uncurtailed or unscissored
connection on VD, or Venetia Digby) would remember such things, "were it
not for fools such as I?" And yet (say I) it's not irrelevant to
SHAKSPER (unless Hardy Cooks that book, which of course he never would).
But why is it not irrelevant? FOUR reasons:

(1) Because imaginative freedom, or truly radical scepticism, in
Shakespeare or Montaigne, goes far, far beyond anything countenanced by
the PC crew, and many other Yanqui conquistadores.

(2) Because we are looking at such a curiously modern version of an
Ancient Double Code. Clitoridectomy, or cutting shorter things shorter,
now has a very hostile press, largely thanks to feminist critics. Yet
this is a problem, or embarrassment, for all those anthropologists and
PC Eng.Litters who wnat to insist that any stone-age culture is worth no
less, or more, respect than our own sustaining illusions.Just think
about this, in relation to slashes that hurt, mutilate, and are
irreversible: e.g. if you are male, would you like to have your own
scrotum slashed by a sharpened stone, in the approved Australian
aboriginal==stone age fashion, or would you expect the Australian law to
protect you from such barbarities? Of course, in ANY culture that sick
or psychotic Male Elders control, mutilating the young becomes
important. But why is it that, even in the infinitely litigious US of A,
outrage about clitoridectomies is acceptable, whereas no mutilated male
has (so far as I know) prosecuted his parents? What would happen, if
this happened?

(3) Because the current history of Shakespeare criticism (especially in
"God's own country") needs to charted in relation to contemporary cant,
or wishful (circumsized?) thinking.

(4) Othello refers to the Turk he butchers as a circumsized dog. Is that
something that we think Shakespeare or his play endorses? If not, why is
the butchering of the Turkish dog referred to as something that Othello
himself (at this stage) takes to be justified, and admirable? Yes, Huck,
bless you: it's tough.

I'm sorry that I wrote my earlier response to this thread when I was
very weary: I'd just come back from Okinawa, and then got excited by the
backlog of SHAKSPER mail. But I hope this response will seem more
obviously pertinent to the Aleppo problem, which has hardly ever been
discussed.

DO we admire the Noble Moor's attitude to circumsized Turkish dogs? If
we don't, what can we do instead? Should we suppose, however sadly, that
Shakespeare (or this play's directing intelligence) expected us to
admire it? As Huck Finn might say, the question is tough. Yes it is, and
yet I don't know one critic who confronts it. Any real confrontation
would also have to reckon with the inseparable complications caused by
the suicide.  Othello is a Christian convert. In passing sentence on
himself he sentences himself to eternal damnation, as well as immediate
death. How are these things to be related? For example, it's not
difficult to admire an Othello who sentences himself to damnation
because he is so horrified by what he has done. That reading could
deliver yet another Noble Moor, of a somewhat (Graham-)Greene-ish tinge;
but could it be reconciled with the idea that the only good circumsized
Turks are dead Turks?

Inevitably, this connects with Shylock too. If I understand it, Harold
Bloom's charge is that in the other Venetian play it's  Shakespeare (not
Antonio, or Portia) decides that Shylock prefers to survive through by
submitting to the court's jubilant verdict, whereas Bloom (and I don't
doubt it) would sooner die, and wishes that Shakespeare would allow
Shylock that braver response.

Ain't religion wonderful?

Cheers, Graham

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