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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Fall of General Petraeus, Othello, and Mark Antony

I teach a course on theatre including Shakespeare’s Othello and Antony and Cleopatra. A number of students the other day remarked on the uncanny similarities between the Affair Petraeus and these plays. In all three cases, men of high standing, impeccable reputations for battlefield courage, strategic genius, and management discipline were brought down by sexual relationship; and for all three, one has to ask the question “Why?”.  How could such great men fall so far off the rails?

Othello, despite being a Moor was welcomed by Venetian society.  His reputation for honor, courage, loyalty and military brilliance allowed him into a forbidding and closed world.  When the Turks were invading and the City-State threatened, the Duke immediately turned to Othello, for no other general could possibly match his supreme skills and absolute integrity.

Othello was such an impressive man that he was able to woo and win Desdemona, the daughter of a wealthy Venetian family.  She was, like the Duke and other nobles, taken with his exploits.  Her father objects, having succumbed to the poisonous words of Iago:

'Zounds, sir, you're robb'd; for shame, put on
your gown;
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say.

Othello must defend himself to the Duke.  I wooed her, says Othello, and won them both by tales of my exploits.  And heroic exploits they were, and romantically he told:

Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels' history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,--such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.

Not only did he woo Desdemona, but her father as well, despite his protestations:

Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question'd me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;

The Duke himself is won over and says ”I think this tale would win my daughter too”.

When the play opens, Othello is at the height of his powers, status, and position.  He is a true hero, all the more so because he is a foreigner, an African, and a black man  Then he begins his slow, painful, downfall.

Many critics cite the demonic influence of Iago – an embodiment of pure evil - as the principal reason for Othello’s demise.  Iago gives only the flimsiest of logical reasons for destroying Othello; but his real motivation is evil.  He loves and relishes cruelty; and not only does he bring the great man down, he does it slowly and methodically, planting the seed of jealousy in his mind, then progressively nourishing it, becoming more and more overt until his sexual innuendoes become fully-blown, crude, and provocative.  You must kill her, Iago says, finally to the mad Othello.  

Other critics have suggested that Othello himself brought this tragedy on.  He was unable to bridge the gap between the battlefield and the life of courtly Venice.  He was used to giving orders and being obeyed.  He judged men by their loyalty, obedience, and valor; and had no reason to explore any more of their character, background, or ambitions.  He was not paid to listen, to appreciate, or to support.  He was there to lead, and to lead to victory.

Iago was one of Othello’s trusted lieutenants, and he considered him honest and trustworthy because of his military behavior and exploits.  When both returned to civilian life, Othello was unable to look beyond Iago’s martial history and see him for the devious, duplicitous, manipulating, and evil person he was.

Also because of his battlefield history, Othello never understood women.  Outside of the camp prostitutes and more elegant courtesans that followed Venetian armies, there were no normal or ordinary women; and Othello was totally unprepared for the complexities of Desdemona and especially her independence, unusual if not unheard of in 16th century Venice.  Desdemona on the surface was a young, simple, and innocent woman, but beneath the surface she was ambitious, sexually precocious, and demanding. Othello had no idea what he was getting into. Given the mores of the Age of Chivalry, women were either saints or whores (and sometimes both), and at the first signs of jealousy, Othello twisted his suspicions and then rage to all women.  He was completely overmatched.

Mark Antony suffered the same fate.  A great general, a triumvir of Rome, a conquering hero with the world at his feet, he began a long dalliance with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.  Despite the fact that Cleopatra was using him, just as she had used Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey, the son of Pompey the Great, and other Romans, Antony fell completely off the rails, besotted with the seductive Queen and the luxuriant life of the East.  Cleopatra toyed with Antony, belittled him in her comparisons to the great Julius Caesar, joked about him with her minions, and jettisoned him as soon as it became clear that her future, if any, was with Octavian.  She betrayed him twice on the high seas and her last treachery led to the defeat of Antony’s battle for supremacy in the civil war.

Again, the same question must be asked – “Why?” – and one must conclude that it was for many of the same reasons that brought down Othello.  Antony could not make the elision between the military life of the battlefield and the far more complex world of women, let alone that of one of history’s most complex, alluring, powerful, and manipulative.  Like Othello, he was out of his element and completely overmatched.

There were other similarities.  Both Othello and Antony were old for their times; and in both plays references are made to advancing age.  Antony may well have made a conscious decision to give up all the martial discipline and political vigilance of his younger years and willingly given himself up to Cleopatra, knowing that even if this love doomed him, it was the one and only passionate, total, life-affirming relationship of his life.  For Othello, marriage to the aristocratic Desdemona might have been the last piece of the social puzzle, after which he would fit in to Venetian society completely and incontestably.

While few of us know General Petraeus as well as we do Othello or Mark Antony thanks to Shakespeare’s plays, we have to surmise at least that some of the same dynamics were at work.  Here is a man who knew nothing but military campaigns and the deliberate, intense, focused, and purposeful rise to power and supreme authority.  He, apparently, was a model of propriety and moral rectitude.  He had been married for almost 40 years in a model marriage – perhaps not necessarily a passionate or romantic one, but at least a safe, acceptable, and predictable one.   The Army afforded him all the social compensations he needed – male camaraderie, an easy nonchalance in pick-up games and locker rooms, at formal dances, and military ceremonies.  At sixty years old, at the peak of his powers – just like Othello and Antony – he falls off the rails, gets involved with women in extra-marital affairs and runs into the buzz saw of female jealousy, manipulation, and cunning for which he was totally unprepared.

In order to be an efficient killing machine, the military must be a rigid, disciplined institution.  Whether now, in 16th Century, or in Roman times, military victory and supremacy required order, rigorous simplicity, and a clear code of conduct.  In all eras life in this peculiar institution was hard but comforting.  It provided an automatic social life and environment.  It was totally predictable and expected.  Although both Antony and Petraeus, officers of high rank, also had to deal with the complex world of politics, it was far more straightforward than civilian life, and especially sexual relationships.  History alone can provide a convenient and reliable basis for military and political decisions.  While sexual conflict and tempest are predictable; and men and women together seem always to behave in the same ways, each relationship – as Antony, Othello, and Petraeus unhappily found out – is different, unique, and often indecipherable.

Shakespeare, more than any other playwright, understood human relationships, and wrote again and again about the foibles of men and women, the illogic of love (if it ever really existed), the complex intersection of sexual and secular politics.  As a student of Shakespeare I have read his plays again and again, each time discovering some new insight about why and how people behave.  I cannot possibly get into the mind of Petraeus, but I have to assume that Shakespeare had at least some insight into the heroic successful and surprisingly weak minds of great military leaders.

All I can say is, General Petraeus, you are in good company.

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