Bell Shakespeare’s production of Othello is touring Australia until December 2016. What does the recent Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence tell us about the Venetian general’s murder of his wife Desdemona, and his subsequent suicide? How might the commission’s recommendations have prevented the violence in Shakespeare’s play? And how does a 21st-century perspective on family violence deepen our insights and pathos on viewing the play?
Othello’s abuse of Desdemona matches the Commission’s description of family violence as a multifaceted pattern of escalating behaviour rather than a single event.
Having been mistakenly told that Desdemona is having an affair with his lieutenant Cassio, Othello repeatedly verbally abuses Desdemona in sexual terms – he calls her a public whore, a commoner, a strumpet and a devil.
He makes increasingly violent threats to harm and kill Desdemona. “She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief / Must be to loather her” quickly escalates to “I’ll tear her all to pieces!” and “chop her into messes.”
The abuse escalates again when Othello publicly strikes Desdemona. In the final murder scene Othello terrorises Desdemona by directing her to pray, saying:
Othello: I would not kill thy soul
Desdemona: Talk you of killing?
Othello: Ay, I do…Thou art to die.
Desdemona: Kill me not, kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight, but half an hour, while I say one prayer.
Othello kills Desdemona by smothering her with pillows in their matrimonial bed. On subsequently learning there had been no affair, he kills himself.
The commission reports strangulation as a common method used by male perpetrators to kill female victims. It also reports:
a demonstrable link between family violence, homicide and suicide … a large number of men who died from suicide in Victoria between 2009 and 2012 had a history of family violence.
Othello suicides not because he killed Desdemona, but rather because he killed her on the mistaken understanding that she had desired and loved another man. The implication is that if she actually had an affair with Cassio, Othello would have considered the killing justified, and not taken his own life.
The Commission shows the causes of family violence to be complex. Factors shaping it include gender inequality and community attitudes towards women:
Stereotypes about men and women are reinforced through practices such as social tolerance of discrimination and the idea that violence against women is sometimes justified by women’s behaviour – for example, if a woman has sex with another man.
Deeply embedded societal beliefs – for example, the belief … that men’s intimate partners and children are their possessions to do with as they please; that women are inferior to men – influence men’s choices to commit sexual and other acts of violence.
In the Shakespeare play, Iago, when describing Desdemona’s secret marriage to Othello to her father Brabantio, characterises it as an act of theft.
Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags.
Desdemona herself adopts the narrative of being the property of others, saying she has preserved her body for Othello “from any other unlawful touch”.
The commission noted:
Societal beliefs also affect victims’ perceptions of the criminality of such actions. Women and children, like men, are socialised in a world where such beliefs are embedded in language, the family and other common social institutions and practices … often women believe that the violence is their own fault.
Desdemona attempts to manage Othello’s violence trying to woo him back. She accepts his abuse as “my wretched fortune” asking, “What shall I do to win my lord again?”
Venetian society is barely aware of male violence towards women. Iago’s abuse of his wife Emilia, for instance, is not commented on or apparently even noticed by the other characters. The only rebuke of Othello is made by Lodovico (representative of the Venetian duke and senate) who, observing Othello strike Desdemona, tells him to “make amends” – but makes no other intervention.
Desdemona herself struggles to identify or understand her abuse. Before she dies Emilia asks her “O, who hath done this deed?”; Desdemona replies, “Nobody; I myself.” And indeed, one victim told the Commission:
I didn’t have a language to describe what was wrong in my relationship.
At the end of Othello – after the deaths of Desdemona, Othello and Emilia – Lodovico describes the tragedy as the result of Iago’s villainy and Othello’s failings, rather than due to societal attitudes towards women, or systemic violence.
The commission noted that too little effort is devoted to preventing the occurrence of family violence in the first place. Instead society reacts to family violence as a one-off crisis, after the event.
Gender equality, it noted, will also reduce family violence:
Intimate partner violence is likely to be higher when women lack autonomy and men dominate decision-making in public life, as well as in families and relationships.
Can a modern audience, viewing Othello through a 21st century framework of family violence, still see the play as a tragedy? A view of family violence as an act of male entitlement, reflective of social beliefs of women as property, removes the tragic glory from Othello’s suicide.
We cannot accept his claim that he was “one that loved not wisely, but too well”.
Nor his claim to be “an honourable murderer… For naught did I in haste, but all in honour.”
Indeed, the tragedy of the play could have been prevented by recognising Othello’s controlling behaviour towards Desdemona as violence arising out of societal attitudes as much as Othello’s personality.
There is no tragedy in his mistaken murder of Desdemona. There is no honour in killing her even if she was unfaithful. A modern view of family violence leaves Othello as nothing but a killer acting out the narrative of gendered violence of the 16th century Venetian society presented by Shakespeare. We are left without a tragedy and just a murder.
For a 21st century audience informed by the findings of the Royal Commission, the pathos of the play comes from how unnecessary and preventable – yet inevitable within the story – are the deaths. And how such deaths continue today.