The first week of October, juniors and seniors went to Ashland, Oregon, to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of several plays. I’ve been going there with my parents and some family friends at least once every summer since I was 7. Last year we studied “Julius Caesar” before going to watch it with the school; this year we studied “Othello.”
We’ve talked about the domestic violence in “Othello” during English class – it’s one of the major points, as the play ends in Othello killing Desdemona, his wife. We also discussed the difference between reading Shakespeare’s works in Elizabethan times and reading them now, especially with the strides that have been taken toward sexual and racial equality since then. And while it may not be fair to judge Shakespeare through a modern lens – perhaps criticizing that he used fewer female characters than male ones, or that some works do not pass the Bechdel test – I think we should still read it through this lens and reflect on how such narratives have formed our society.
This summer I was a counselor at a Quaker Camp in the Santa Cruz mountains. One camper’s close family friend had passed away at the beginning of the week, and at our campfire at the beach, he started crying. Later that week during lunch, I checked up on him. He started crying again, and we had a talk about life and death and friends – pretty intense.
His friends came out of the dining hall and were playing around us. A couple of them went into a crawl space in their bunk with a window facing us. I had my back toward them, and the boy I was talking to was facing them. He’d already been feeling better, but then he suddenly started giggling. I asked him what was funny and realized that they’d been making lewd sexual gestures to him behind me.
I laughed it off – they were middle school boys, what did I expect? But later, at our staff meeting, I mentioned what had happened and started feeling worse and worse about it. One of my coworkers pointed out what would have happened if the gender roles were reversed, how inappropriate it would be, and they wanted to have yet another talk with the boys.
That had been my sixth year going to that camp, the place I felt safest in the world. Three boys who were under my supervision, my care, could put me in my place as a female in an instant. Of course, they didn’t know the effect of their actions, and it probably isn’t fair to assume their maturity level.
My parents drove up to Ashland on Oct. 4 and watched “Othello” with some of the students. Then we stayed until Sunday while other students left with the bus on Friday morning.
In the hotel room we talked about “Othello.” My mother was rightfully disturbed at the domestic violence theme, and my father agreed. He said he thought the play should be more focused on the horrendous actions of Othello. I think that that focus is a strong way to bring it home for a modern audience, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement, but the racial aspect really complicates things. If they demonized Othello for killing Desdemona instead of focusing on his and Iago’s humanity, the theme would turn into a Black man beating and murdering his wife, something that we’ve heard all too many times and would serve to demonize a race (yet again) or gender (unproductively) instead of a character.
My mother said she didn’t like seeing domestic violence in so many of Shakespeare’s plays. I countered that it’s not being depicted as positive, and while the actors may not react with repulsion, the audience does.
This may sound cliche, but if we ignore history, we’ll repeat it. When they cut the scenes of domestic violence, we stop being reminded of the terror that so many have had to face. When the audience stops reacting viscerally to those scenes, those scenes become normalized. I’d be much more repulsed by that.
i. iv. vii
you’re too FRAGILE why are you so EMOTIONAL
s–t, you’re UNPREDICTABLE you’re f–king OUT
RAGEOUS GIRL you’re WEAK now you’re HORN
Y you’re CONNIVING you’re such a SLUT you’re a
BITCH you’re such a LIAR you’re so SEXY you’re a
lways JEALOUS stop being PETTY stop being so ST
UPID can you CALM DOWN just GET OVER IT wi
thout me you’re NOTHING you TURN ME ON you
DON’T MATTER you’re so LUCKY to have me you’
re REPLACEABLE you’re an INSIGNIFICANT HO
ii. v. viii
and it’s easy to stop
there, we can always stop
there, but how much are
we feeling if we stop
woman is a
woman be she from
Hong Kong or Detroit,
a woman from Caracas as
a woman from Berlin,
as a woman from
Delhi, as a one
from Kigali. and
yet there’s pause
in skins. there’s
little difference in
our treatment by
those of our own
color, but there’s
a stark contrast
in us with darker
skins. and yet
we’ve so much
hate, so with love
to counter. and yet
we’re still divided
by color. so some
child of societies
or some twisted
demon in our
let that child
hair is dark and coarse.
which pause hurts most
iii. vi. ix
Pause, and watch the women dance. See how their skirts flare at their knees. How their skirts fly up, guided by their hands. How they remain still, draping down over their legs. How fixed they are in bells, curving like hula hoops round their ankles. See how their shoes twist before tapping. How they never stop tapping and jumping. How their movement is intricate, but hidden by their skirts. How the beads on their ankles clang to the rhythm. See their eyes, these are smiling. How her mouth doesn’t turn up but her eyes shine, content. How her mouth turns up but her eyes do not shine. How she smiles only when looking at her partner, the man.