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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sex And The Single Woman - Where Does Responsibility Begin And End? The Troubling Issue Of Sexual Complicity

While most readers of Othello assume that Desdemona was an innocent victim of male jealousy, a number of critics have suggested that the calculus is not so simple.  Desdemona herself must be held at least partly responsible for her death.

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G. Wilson Knight suggests that Desdemona is somewhat accountable for her own death as she was entering "the unknown seas of marriage with the mystery of man." Knight argues that Desdemona's willingness to commit to the unknown is part of her downfall. She is enraptured by the mystery of Othello and makes a commitment to something she is unsure of, as Brabantio argues that Othello "hast enchanted [Desdemona]."

Othello himself says that she "loved me for my tales"; it soon becomes clear that Desdemona married Othello's exoticism not Othello the man. Desdemona was a previously loving and loyal daughter and that it seems out of character for her to elope with a near stranger. From this change in character we can infer, continues Knight, that Desdemona was, in marrying Othello, acting out of lust and not love.

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Knight goes on to say that Desdemona was a fickle and immature woman who changed abruptly when she met Othello; but other critics who acknowledge Desdemona’s self-awareness and growing independence suggest that while these traits are now considered laudable and essential in modern feminist society, were tantamount to censure and social opprobrium in 16th century Venice and contributed to the jealousy, anger, and murderous rage of Othello.

Other critics offer a compromise – the decision may have been sudden, but it was the result of considerations and emotions that had been growing and waiting for the right moment for expression.
The view of fickleness, unprovoked and precipitous acts, is one which is inconsistent with the Desdemona revealed in the early scenes of the play. She has verified her decisions, both to elope with Othello and to stick by him when she is disrespectful to her, with sound and logical arguments; sticking to her decisions; not a sign of a fickle character. This disloyalty to her father would suggest that Desdemona's character has undergone a serious and sudden transformation.

At the same time, she is very naïve about the consequences of her actions, and this naïveté is her undoing. She does not understand how her assertiveness will affect Othello. She does not understand how her well-meaning affection for Cassio can so easily be used by an enemy of her husband or how quickly he will assume the worst. She also changes her attitude in mid-stream. After a period of coquettish sexual forwardness, she becomes dutiful and submissive when Othello begins his jealous and abusive period.

Knight argues that Desdemona's innocence and simplicity is overpowering and this contributes to her own death. He says that although innocence was a virtue highly held at the time of writing, the enormous level of Desdemona's naiveté could be said to be `too good to be true' and that, as highlighted in `the Willow scene' she is an aberrant character in the play. Certainly Desdemona's innocence and naivety go hand in hand with trouble as she so inexperienced that she does not recognize being persecuted and bullied by her husband, and will not argue with him.

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J
an Kott is another critic who argued that Desdemona is at least partly responsible for her own death.  Kott agrees that Desdemona is innocent; however he argues that other people see her as less innocent than Knight would argue. For example, he disputes that although Emilia sees her as an angel, male characters such as Rodrigo and Iago are sexually obsessed with her and she is totally oblivious to that fact.

Another contributing factor to Kott's theory is the fact that Desdemona is sexually obsessed with Othello. She almost sees lust and love as the same thing. It is from their whirlwind romance we can gather that Desdemona often confuses love and lust. Kott argued that because of this she is partially accountable for her own death. He argues that it is a culmination of her flaws, which make her culpable in her own demise.

In the Fishburne adaptation of Othello, Desdemona is sensual to the very end. The last action Desdemona carries out before she dies is to run her hand down his face in a very sensual way. This embodies her attitude towards Othello throughout that, and many other interpretations. Kott also argues that it is in her attitude towards Othello that Desdemona which proves part of her expanding anthology of errors. He claims that as Desdemona (unwittingly) provokes Othello by persisting to talk about Cassio she gives him grounds to believe Iago's accusations, thus providing Othello grounds to bolster his new found conviction.

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Another argument put forward by both critics and characters in the play itself to show Desdemona's Machiavellian side. Iago in particular attempts to tarnish Desdemona's otherwise pristine reputation by pointing out the fact that she betrayed her father in order to elope with Othello, he says that "she has betrayed her father and may [betray Othello]." Iago uses this to his advantage to emphasize his idea that Desdemona is being unfaithful to him.

As regards Desdemona's responsibility in her own death this is a negative mark against an otherwise untarnished sheet. Another factor, drawing especially on Knight's argument of Desdemona entering the unknown, is that, marrying a soldier Desdemona knew, herself, the scale of the difficulties and hitches she would encounter. Although, many would argue a `hurdle' as sizable as murder could not have been predicted.

The issue of sexual responsibility today has lost the complexity of Othello and, as seen in the prevailing view, men are uniquely responsible for any and all consequences of sexual behavior.  According to this view there are no confounding circumstances like those in Shakespeare’s play.  A woman’s character, personality, intent, purpose, sexuality, or ambition are irrelevant.  

There is no such thing as an enabling environment when it comes to adjudicating sexual behavior.  No social gathering, no matter how characteristically and historically alcohol-fueled and promiscuous can be considered a contributing factor to inappropriate sexual behavior.  Neither risk assessment nor risk avoidance are a woman's responsibility.  Her right to be wherever she chooses and to be afforded automatic, inherent inviolability and protection by law and society is absolute.

This highly politicized position is morally suspect.   The Catholic Church has always warned about ‘the occasion of sin’, defined as, "Any person, place or thing which allures a man to sin …external circumstances--whether of things or persons--which either because of their special nature or because of the frailty common to humanity or peculiar to some individual, incite or entice one to sin." (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917).  More official teachings have come from the Vatican:
On this point it should be noted, as indeed the Fathers and Doctors of the Church teach, that we can more easily struggle against and repress the wiles of evil and the enticements of the passions if we do not struggle directly against them, but rather flee from them as best we may. For the preserving of chastity, according to the teaching of Jerome, flight is more effective than open warfare: "Therefore I flee, lest I be overcome." Flight must be understood in this sense, that not only do we diligently avoid occasion of sin, but especially that in struggles of this kind we lift our minds and hearts to God...." (Papal Encyclical, Pope Pius XII, 1954) 
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Anyone who knowingly and deliberately chooses an occasion of sin – or more simply an environment known for amoral, antisocial, illegal, or dangerous behavior – must share some responsibility for the consequences of so doing.

There is nothing new in male susceptibility to physical sexual stimuli.  If there is anything hardwired in the male brain, it is sexual forwardness, quick sexual stimulation, and persistence.  Yet feminists insist that women have no responsibility regarding unwanted male attention.  Men’s immature and poorly disciplined sexual nature is the problem and the only problem. Men have the responsibility for seeing past dress and sexual allure, and for behaving neutrally unless and until invited otherwise.

The women of Shakespeare’s Comedies – Rosalind, Viola, and Beatrice – are strong and savvy, manipulate and tame their suitors playing upon the fragility of the male ego, the immature simplicity of male sexual desire, and the false and ignorant fantasy of romantic love.   They understand men, their maleness, and male sexuality, and use these insights with cunning and ambition. 

The women of Shakespeare’s Tragedies are Romances are no different.  Portia is merciless with her overbearing, pompous suitors.  She understands men, their empty arrogance, and foolish pursuits, and finds a way to attract and secure the man she wants.

Cleopatra never loved Antony, but found him as necessary and important to her career as she did Julius Caesar and Pompey.  She was – at least according to Shakespeare if not history – responsible for Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium.  His love for her was so besotted and irrational that he lost all military sense and followed her into a disastrous naval engagement.

Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, understood male ambition, jealousy, and insecurity and used them against her own son for her own gain.

Henrik Ibsen wrote plays about strong women.  Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilde Wangel (Hedda Gabler, Rosmersholm, The Master Builder) were amoral heroines who were single-minded and absolute in their desire for power, control, and sexual dominance.

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The Queens of Shakespeare’s Histories were no less able to manipulate the men around them.  Despite historical patriarchy, the rules of the Royal Court, and the deadly competition around them, Cressida, Gertrude, Margaret, and Lady Macbeth ruled men completely. 

Lady Macbeth was merciless in her exhortations to her weak, doubtful husband. 
What beast was ’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
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In other words, Ibsen and Shakespeare would have no patience for today’s protective, naïve, and simplistic view of sexual behavior.  Sexuality was the essential character of men and women profoundly different in the ways they expressed it.  Sex itself was of no consequence, but the very sex-defined behavior of their women was.

Sexual nature and sexually-determined behavior have been consistent for millennia; and only the social perspective of it has changed.  Two complementary but radically different themes have characterized this sexual history – the amoral use of feminine sexual power within patriarchal societies; and the very moral behavior necessary to safeguard and preserve female integrity in these societies.

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