Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sir Salman's Shakespeare

Not that I normally turn to the characters of a novel for insights into the characters of Shakespeare's plays, but . . .

Seeing as Sir Salmon (whoops - Sir loin all over again - make that Salman) has just been 'Sired', I dug out of the local British library a copy of 'Fury' - one of the more recent novels of a novelist I enjoyed reading when I lived in countries you could get hold of his books.

There, in the very first chapter, you have a 'doctoral thesis' on the importance of the inexplicable in Shakespeare - and as one character strokes the others finely wrought breast . . .

“. . . at the heart of each of the great tragedies were unanswerable questions about love . . .”

“Why did Hamlet, loving his father . . . delay his revenge while, loved by Ophelia, he destroyed her instead?”

'”and why was Macbeth, a man's man (sic) who loved his king and country, so easily led by the erotic but loveless Lady M. . . .?”

And now the really interesting one!

Othello lacked 'emotional intelligence'. “Othello's incredible stupidity about love, the moronic scale of the jealousy which leads him to murder” was because “Othello doesn't love Desdemona” - the books italics.

‘What?’ a thousand love-lorn loons honk!

But be patient – one thing experience has taught me is that quality writers putting such odd statements into the mouths of their characters usually have something hidden up their sleeves. Rushdie is no exception – he goes on:

He says he loves her “. . . but it can’t be true. Because if he loved her, the murder makes no sense. For me, Desdemona is Othello’s trophy wife, his most valuable and status-giving possession, the physical proof of his rise in a white man’s world.”


So, Othello is just a ‘Material Man’! Makes some sort of sense to me – especially at this end of the capitalist revolution, dot booms and bubbles all over the place (not to mention gold wearing Russian oligarchs, and the less wealthy, but no less ostentatious Romanian BMW-ers).

The ‘Black-eyed Peas’ song and video – ‘My Lumps’ - pops up at this point too. Although I never trust that lot to not be doing a deconstruction on the world – far too intelligent for their own good.

Rushdie’s character hasn’t finished there though:

Othello, as a Moor, is of the Islamic moral universe – “whose polarities are honour and shame. Desdemona’s death is an ‘honour killing’. She didn’t have to be guilty. The accusation was enough. The attack on her virtue was incompatible with Othello’s honour.”

And a nagging suspicion that this is a ‘true reading’ for the contemporary world creeps in – gone are the Romantics at last – get real.

And houses of cards come crashing down.

Could Rushdie have opened up a new, rich vein worth pursuing – an Islamic Othello? Forget all the Christian focused culture clash papers – turn it on its head – Othello is a modern Muslim.

Honour killings are not just taking place in the streets of Lebanon – they are happening in today’s UK. They are not even Muslim-only territory – read Zorba the Greek and you’ll get a real sense of the rural Balkan world today – Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim. I won’t do more than touch on the hopefully resolved ‘Troubles’ of Northern Ireland.

I’ll leave you with some more thoughts on Shakespeare, our contemporary’s, character – thoughts I find deeply disturbing but so potent, reflective of much of the so-called love relationships of the modern world:

“She’s not even a person to him. He has reified her. She’s his Oscar-Barbie statuette. His doll.”

All quotes from Salman Rushdie, Fury, chap 1, Vintage 2002.


Ian Thal said...

This is an interesting reading both of Othello, the play, and of Othello, the character. Is there another play by Shakespeare that our contemporaries cast in such racially stark terms?

A few years ago, I was telling a friend of mine about a production I had just seen, and his response was that he can no longer watch the play on the count that in every production he is asked to feel sympathy for Othello, even though, just like Iago, he is an egotist who feels justified to use and destroy people (and women in particular) as if they are commodities.

I have also been wondering recently about the current fashion (at least in America) of casting an actor of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in the role when, as a Moor, Othello's family would have been of North African origin and so he would have been more likely of Arab or Berber origin (and of course, all those very different people would have looked "dark" to an Englishman) which seems to fit in with Rushdie's reading.

Alan K.Farrar said...

I'm not ignoring your comments - just letting them stew for a while.
Last night I endured the recent film Othello - I wasn't convinced (more in a full post).
Re race - I think the Merchant is too 'stuck' in the race aspect (which gets me into trouble on various boards)...

Ian Thal said...

Of course, as far as I know, there has never been in the past, nor now, a tradition of casting Jewish actors as Shylock (indeed, a lot of Jewish actors are reluctant to play the role) while we moderns typically cast black actors as Othello.

Alan K.Farrar said...

In the UK there is a developing tradition of a need for Jewish participation - or the show don't go on.
Not always as Shylock, frequently as director.
This tends to skew the show a bit away from what I see as its centre.
The same, I'm afraid, with casting 'black' Othellos - although some actors really do give insightful performances (Willard White for one) - I see it more a reflection of the need for realism engendered by film than 'social necessity'.