There are a few things I know really well in this world. I know how to make a delicious marinara sauce, I know the second soprano part of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by heart, and I know Shakespeare’s play “The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice.” I happen to love marinara sauce, SSA harmony, and this mature tragedy too, which is good news for my brain. It’s less rewarding when I can remember lyrics to, say, a song like Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” or the moves for the Macarena.
I reluctantly gave up teaching this particular play a few semesters ago because I had grown weary of reading essays about the villainous Iago, and, for that matter, Othello himeself, but I know that in a few years hence, I will once again being able to delve into this tragic tale of jealousy, betrayal, and Cypriot nights that concludes with a speech of recognition from our tragic hero, urging those listening to be honest in their report of his suicide and the murder he has committed: “When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, / Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak – Of one that loved not wisely but too well.”
I did not grow weary of reading about Desdemona, however. Othello’s wife seems a bit secondary in the play, more an indirect object than an actor at times, and over the semesters, fewer students chose to analyze her role. This is a shame. Of course, my 21st century feminist wants to grab her by the arm and march her to Othello’s quarters so they can have a Big Conversation, and yet she speaks wisdom – when she speaks. She reveals, too, the rampant patriarchy and misogyny of that (and, frankly, this) world. One of my favorite lines in all of “Othello,” in all of Shakespeare, and perhaps in all of literature is something she says in the middle of the play – Act III, scene IV – after a crumbling,cruel Othello berates her in what seems to be a most unfamiliar fashion. They’ve only been married a short time. Their bond should not be curdling so quickly! This quasi business trip is supposed to be their honeymoon! Othello has come to Cyprus to defeat the Turks, and the bad weather takes care of the threat for him, which means that Desdemona and Othello should be riding horseback on the beach, not devolving into his soap opera-worthy accusations. And yet the combination victim/perpetrator Othello loses himself in his unfounded jealousy. When Desdemona’s servant and frenemy Emilia questions Othello’s rather terrible behavior on this particular night, Desdemona excuses him (again!) and says, “Men’s natures wrangle with inferior things, / Though great ones are their object….”
Such truth in those lines. I mean, Othello has pretty much gone off the deep end. Iago’s poison has done its job. I really wish she wouldn’t be so quick to gloss over his rudeness. But her assessment of human nature is beautifully accurate, and I see myself as someone plagued with the same paradox. How many times have I frittered away opportunities, time, resources, what have you, in pursuit of small things (naps, ego, craving for junk food, to name a few) when I wanted to be passionate about Important Matters? So many times! In my parenting (“Stop yelling at your sister,” I yell at my child, hoping he will grasp the larger, deeper lesson and not my hypocritical delivery), in my work life (when I want to convert young writers to the joys of clear expression, but spend a large part of my teaching energy on grading essays that often end up in a trash can), in my personal affairs too (where my goals and dreams and aspirations all too often sit like unopened Christmas gifts under a dying tree and my free time is spent napping, eating guacamole, which isn’t actually an inferior pursuit at all, now that I think about it, or other rather temporarily pleasing activities).
The wrangle with inferior things is unavoidable. I’m not suggesting otherwise. I would like, however, to more often be the victor in this important bout. Great things are my object. I want to be busy with those more noble pursuits and marshal my resources accordingly. I want to make sure I don’t end up at the end of my life, as does Othello, with the painful evaluation that I loved (or used my time and energy) “not well.”
So do any of you have suggestions for better wrangling? How have you been able to lessen your focus on “inferior things”?