Othello and toxic masculinity

I apologize for not spending enough time on black history month this February.

 If I do prove her haggard,

Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,

I’ld whistle her off and let her down the wind,

To pray at fortune. Haply, for I am black

Or for I am declined

Into the vale of years,—yet that’s not much—

She’s gone. I am abused; and my relief

Must be to loathe her.

Othello, Act III, Scene iii.

Psychologists say some men expect the worst of everyone, especially women. I would argue that Othello is an example of a man who has been threatened so often, he expects the worst of everyone, especially his wife, and this is why it’s so easy for Iago to manipulate him.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in 21st century America let alone the trauma of Othello’s life, which was riddled with hardship such as being sold into Slavery, encountering Cannibals, and rising through the ranks of an army that doesn’t quite trust him. But based on the psychology of people who undergo trauma, the text of the play, and some details about Venetian life, I think looking at Othello through the perspective of trauma and toxic masculinity is an illuminating interpretation of the play.

I want to be clear that I am not saying domestic violence is condonable, or that being black has anything to do with abuse. What I am trying to say is that Othello is a play that in my view sheds a light on trauma, PTSD, toxic masculinity, and systemic oppression.

In the book Beyond Anger, psychologist Thomas J. Harbin illustrates just how easily a man can deceive himself with jealousy brought on by his own insecurities.

Angry men often believe that others do not approve of them, or think highly of them so more than likely when you assume you know what another is thinking you will assume that person is thinking negative thoughts about you more garbage yen when you For example and whenever [Othello] notices that his wife is not in a good mood, he asks “What’s wrong with you?” his wife usually says that nothing is wrong but [Othello] assumes that she is not telling the truth, and that she is actually angry with him. He then gets angry because he assumes she is blaming him for something that he didn’t do; the ‘garbage out’ mind reading is also frustrating to those around you friends coworkers and family can see that you are getting angry with them, but they have no idea why.

J. Thomas Harbin, “Beyond Anger,” 2018.

Why might Othello be insecure and angry?

Actor Adrian Lester doesn’t think that the play is about race, but about the trauma of military society and according to Aryanna Thompson of George Washington University, he hoped the audience would see Othello as a soldier, not a black man, when he played the role at the National Theater in 2003, when England and America were engaged in military interventions in Iraq.

Though this interpretation works, I would argue that the exploitation of people of color is very much what the play is about, not just on stage but also in places like the military. “The play’s military context is short-lived, serving mainly as a framework for the intense private wars that follow.  And in this emotional arena, Othello is far less secure.” Maybe Othello’s toxic insecurities come from being seen as disposable by the Venetian upper crust. Like Shylock before him, Othello is an alien in his own country and if he offends anyone, he will be crushed. He is then put in a dangerous situation where the troops have to hurry up and wait for the danger to find them, which is always a recipe for disaster as the clip above shows.

Maybe a lot of black people felt this feeling of cultural disposibility in the 1600s: listen to professor Thompson talk about the way black people were exploited in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era:

If you watched this clip, you might notice that for most of the history of the play, the draw has been seeing white actors ‘rise to the challenge’ of playing a black man. Sadly, Othello the character is not only exploited by characters in his own play,  the role has been exploited as a novelty by theater companies for centuries. My point here is that I see merit to the question of whether or not this play deserves to be performed since from the beginning, it was designed to exploit blackness and the stereotypes of blackness by white actors.

Trauma makes abuse understandable but it doesn’t make it right. The cycle must be broken. Shakespeare’s gift here is to show how toxic masculinity is ultimately self destructive. Plus racial oppression and sexual repression leads everyone into tragedy.

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