martes, 22 de mayo de 2018

WHAT MAKES A MONSTER AND WHAT MAKES A MAN?

LUDOVICA:
His right hand raised against her,
his lungs are breathing fire;
her fairy face, streaming with tears,
turned upwards to the skies...
Compassion sighs just to behold
her sorrow and his ire,
moving to tears of warmth that will
thaw any heart of ice...

DESDEMONA (very sweetly):
Once springtime bloomed in hope and joy,
smiles, kisses, unforsaken...
yet seasons always change, and
now gone's the springtime sky...
I've fallen... prostrate... 
my heart is... to break...
my blood is freezing with
a shudder... I must die...

LADIES:
Poor wife! Poor wife! Poor wife!
Such dire, deathly anxiety
takes over us, souls frozen and in life still dead...
He struck her down!
He struck her down! That soft face, lilywhite,
lowered and silent, sobbing, in despair...
Thus, when doomed is the sinner, in the heavens,
shed tears for those condemned to hell the angels fair...

GENTLEMEN:
There's something! There's something! There's something!
That dark man knows no piety...
Ominous, sinister is he, inspiring dread...
Tearing his shirt, then at his chest
clawing! Upon the dry ground is still fixed his gaze!
Then, rising up, his dark fists punching upwards, he
challenges the heavens and the sun's bright rays!!

(After recovering from his fit of rage, an exhausted Othello collapses in a chair.)


I.
BEAUTY AND THE MOOR

Let us begin with a fairytale. To be more precise, with a local version of a universal theme.
In a mountainous part of my home country (eastern Spain), a village shopkeeper leaves for Valencia, the capital, and asks his only daughter what she would like as a gift. She requests a red rose. About a fortnight later, instead of her father, the maiden finds a homing pigeon on her windowsill, with directions to a ruined fortified castle. There, she finds her father a prisoner of a monstrous master to whom she offers her own freedom in exchange... In the end, after a brief parole at her parents' home, she returns to the castle to nurse the ailing master to health, turning him back into the dashing prince whose arrogance a righteous fairy had cursed. Sounds familiar?
Well, in our own version of the story, the Beast (instead of some reptilian or mammalian werebeast) is a Moor (who is "whitewashed" into Caucasian race when disenchanted). The village maiden herself is blond and fair-skinned, betraying "old Christian" blood from Germany or Scandinavia, and diminutive compared to her dark, brutal gorilla of a fiancé: one of those oversized thugs like the commonplace of the "Saracen champion" in chivalric romance. Like, for instance, Amoraunt in the Guy of Warwick cycle:

He is so [···] vnrede,
Of his si3t a man may drede,
Wiþ tong as y þe telle.
As blac he is as brodes brend:
He semes as it were a fende,
Þat comen were out of helle.

He is so [···] unread,
that his sight a man may dread
with tongue as he can tell.
As black he is as burned brand,
it seems as if he were a fiend
that come were out of hell.


According to an article on Otherness:
"The Saracen embodies all those things that the Romance hero by necessity approaches, but must not become: he is unrede, uncontrolled – an image of unrestrained masculine power, which Western heroes such as Guy must seek to control and sublimate within chivalric codes of behavior and honour. This uncontrolled masculinity is given demonic form in the figure of the Saracen, characterized by the blackness of the fiend, the Western archetypal construction of the uncontrolled nature of the African."
Likewise, a similar prejudice characterises the Sub-Saharan sailors who "began to quarrel over a string of bright beads." These are bit characters from an Oscar Wilde tale, giving an image of an adult child's magical thinking not quite different from the idea that a handkerchief dyed with preserved human maidens' hearts could hold all the love of a husband as long as his wife kept it, just like the girl to whom George Michael of Wham! (bless his soul) had given his heart last Christmas.
Just like left-handedness, green eyes, or freckles, a darker complexion was regarded as a stigma, outer deviance being aligned in allegoresis with inner deviance (sin, weakness).
In those days, there were laws punishing interracial marriage with death at the stake, just like zoophilia and homosexuality. A story that stars an interracial couple (in which, furthermore, he is the exotic one), with queer subtext and animalistic imagery, was triply subversive.
Shakespeare's Othello essentially subverts this at the core, playing with the ideas of this dichotomy: the dark one is black as sin and of unrede or uncontrolled nature, darkened within and without by the hot sun, thirsty for blood... because of the intrigue caused by his self-controlled Caucasian sworn enemy, who is furthermore his confidant and brother-in-arms. And because of the prejudices ingrained within European society that the "well-behaved, honest one's" intrigue takes advantage of. Furthermore, Iago also makes men of his own race (Cassio and Roderigo) unrede, showing that unrestrained power can also escape the self-discipline of Europeans, that it's a universal. Right and left, norm and deviance, light and darkness, are two halves of a whole and need one another to exist. To quote Pink Floyd:

Us... us... us... us...
and them... them... them... them...
and, after all,
we're only ordinary men...

While Iago may say to his superiors, in the words of Leonard Cohen:


You loved me as a loser,
but now you're worried that I just might win...
you know the way to stop me,
but you don't have the discipline...

Never better said.


II.
UNRAVELLING THE YARN

By general rule, the Belle has to turn the Beast back into Prince Charming. Desdemona sees Othello's visage in his mind, and he claims to be royalty, and she forsakes her ailing lord father for his sake, but the "monster" is not whitewashed or otherwise disenchanted, for she loves him warts and all, and sees not what he could have been, but what he IS. The Bard is deconstructing the old fairytale conventions in this more realistic tale. Furthermore, in these stories, there is always a brother-in-law, or a Gaston, who is dashing as a demigod, yet hard of heart and thinking only of himself, as stark contrast to the Beast. In Othello, indeed, there is one such character (furthermore, married to the heroine's chaperone / older sister figure). You know his name. But you know that this character is only vaguely fleshed out in the folktale, unlike Iago. Furthermore, the "honest ensign" holds a dark, rank grudge against the Moor. Yes, Othello can be read in a thousand ways, and the Beauty and the Beast deconstruction is only one of them.
Snow White's and Aurora's Prince Charming are necrophiles. Cinderella's stepmother has to be sharp and ambitious as a fallen-on-hard-times dowager in a man's world. The Blue Caterpillar is lost in the mists of opium and magic mushrooms. The Big Bad Wolf devours goat-kids, red-hooded girls, and little pigs due to suffering from womb envy. Saul, David's father-in-law, was sadly schizophrenic. Not to mention the Gauls who dope themselves with a potion brewed by a dealer who moonlights as the village sage-priest. All stories we've enjoyed as kids have characters with dark undertones. Each and every yarn can be unravelled by further rewritings.


III.
O REI VAI NU

Among the most relevant spoiler titles EVER is the Portuguese title of Andersen's "Keiserens nye klaer". Right off the bat, "O Rei Vai Nu" ("The King Is Naked") spoils basically the whole premise of the story. A truth that is little acknowledged in-universe until the child on the street says out loud what all those high-and-mighty adults were denying.
The allegedly invisible-to-the-inept ensemble made by those so-called "fashion designers" is something as sham as Iago's honesty, and something equally taken for granted in-universe. And, in tales of this type, it's always an outsider -the child (in "Keiserens nye klaer"), the maidservant (in Othello), the madwoman (in Eulenspiegel painting for the Landgrave), the passing-by soldier of fortune (Cervantes), the ostensibly dead about to be buried alive (Foolish Guys and Troll-Shrewd Women)...- who, from their worm's eye view, tells those in power of the deception the powerful have hitherto been blind to.


IV.
LIEUTENANCY, LEFT-TENANCY

In the nineteenth story (penned by Philippe Vignier) of the medieval French anthology Cent nouvelles nouvelles (The Snowchild/L'enfant de neige), the husband is absent for a decade, having left his wife at home, as he explores and has adventures in foreign lands. To quote the official English translation by Robert B. Douglas:

[···]  not content with the many strange and wonderful things he had seen, or with the large fortune he had made, four or five months after his return, again set forth in quest of adventures in foreign lands, [···] and stayed there so long that ten years passed before his wife again saw him, but he often wrote to her, that she might know that he was still alive.
She was young and lusty, and wanted not any of the goods [···], except the presence of her husband. His long absence constrained her to provide herself with a lover, by whom shortly she had a fine boy.

However, the French original text adds one more shade to the word which Douglas renders into English as "lover:"

 [···] non encores content d'avoir veu et congneu plusieurs choses estranges et merveilleuses, comme d'avoir gaigné largement d'argent, le fist arriere sur la mer bouter, cinq ou six mois puis son retour, et s'en reva à l'adventure, en estrange terre, [···] ; et ne demoura pas si peu, que les dix ans ne feussent passez, ains que sa femme le revist. Trop bien luy escrivoit et assez souvent, et à cette fin qu'elle sceust qu'il estoit encores en vie. Elle, qui jeune estoit et en bon point, et qui faulte n'avoit de nulz biens de Dieu, fors seulement de la presence de son mary, fut contrainte, par son trop demeurer, de prendre ung lieutenant, qui en peu d'heure luy fist ung très beau filz.

An annotation to a Victorian French edition explains the meaning of "lieutenant" in this context as: "Un amant qui remplace le mari".

See what I mean? There you have it, "lieutenant" in its original meaning of "standing in!" It suffices to say that it is not by chance that the character of Cassio, who fills in Iago's charade the role of the "another man" whom the detached wife takes up for a lover (for both the husbands of Desdemona and Emilia to get allegedly "cuckolded"), has the rank of lieutenant (not to mention that Iago feels also that he has wrested his -Iago's- rightful place as aide from him)! 'Tis not by chance that the Bard gave young Cassio the rank of lieutenant, right? (leftenant, right... *smirk!*)









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