"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes–Why did they do it?

I have been fascinated ever since my recent re-reading of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies about motivation.  Ever since Richard III who was certainly the forerunner of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Lear, the question of why is always at the forefront.  I have written some on this before, but some new readings have given different takes.

One of the most interesting characters regarding motivation is Othello – why did he take Iago’s word over Desdemona; and why was he so susceptible to the erosive and finally condemning power of jealousy?  After all, he was a great general, acclaimed and well-received by the nobility of Venice even though he was a Moor.  No one of this stature should have been so susceptible; and as I have argued yesterday, he could be very logical, defending his wooing of Desdemona in very lawyerly terms, and convincing the Doge.  I concluded that it was – in Shakespeare’s vision – either part “savage”, always the African – emotion over reason, passion over stability; or simply a man, like most men, needing assurances that his wife is faithful and that, ultimately his children are his own.

Rosalie L. Colie suggests there is more to it than that and has to do with the very idealized view of Romantic Love held by Shakespeare, and the more common, realistic and cynical worldview of Iago.  In her view Othello wants to believe that Desdemona is a whore because that’s what most women are, that’s how life is; and, Colie goes on, Desdemona  looks too good to Othello, almost a caricature of the ideal woman of Romance; but she displays characteristics that show her reality, her earthiness, her femininity.  Sex is important to her, she looks forward to it with Othello, and says so.  In a later scene with Emilia she considers sex with other men.  Iago is the perfect provocateur – his cynicism fits with Othello’s growing distrust of Desdemona and in fact all women.  In so doing, in viewing Desdemona either as an ideal woman or a whore, he misses what she really was – generous, frank, and devoted.  Othello, then, can deal with the ambiguities of life that most people can.   Othello’s dilemma, then, is more than just a suspicious and perhaps irrational man by culture dealing with his wife, but a parable about idealism and cynicism.

I am not so sure, but it is intriguing; and given the reverence we have for Shakespeare, even the most far-fetched theories are giving credence.  “He can’t possibly just be depicting a jealous man, like many of us”, we say.

A view that I like even more is that of Stanley Covel who suggests the following: “If such a man as Othello is rendered impotent and murderous by aroused or by having aroused, female sexuality, in himself and in others; then no human being is free from this possibility.  This is exactly what Shakespeare was saying, I believe, in Hamlet.  Because of Hamlet’s general impotence (i.e. not being able to act because of some congenital indecisiveness), he takes it out on his mother for whom he has Oedipal longings; and on Ophelia for whom he has both lust and suspicion (like Othello for Desdemona). 

Most critics have concluded that Othello never consummated his marriage – the Turk was at the gates, a noble was wounded, etc.- but that with as virile and commanding a figure as Othello (let alone the cultural assumption at the time on the sexuality of Africans), he certainly could have.  If he did not, then this issue of Covel’s has salience.  He is taking out his very conflicted views of women – as Colie suggested above as well – on Desdemona.

Why Macbeth decided to kill the King is another interesting mystery.  One could say that he heard the prophecy from the Weird Sisters, and since then the road to monarchy was going to be easy, why not?  But Macbeth never talks about his ambition – only his wife does, which leads Honigmann to say that Macbeth was “The Murderer as Victim”.  In his reading of the play and of contemporary culture, Honigmann says that it was his wife who had the ambition; and, as in Hamlet and King Lear women use the issue of lack of manliness to goad their men on.  Hamlet was first the victim of the Weird Sisters – remember that in Shakespeare’s time people believed in witchcraft almost universally – and then by his wife. Clearly after the murder the guilt for a crime he really did not want to commit did him in.

It is interesting to think about Richard III in this context.  He was the classic man of ambition of the Histories, no doubt about his ambition and willing to do all and everything to get it…to do what it takes; and yet, in one of the final scene where he sees the ghosts of those whom he has killed, he has remorse.  In his case the remorse passes quickly, but in the fact that he had it, he was perhaps the first of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes who also thought about what they did.

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