Month: December 2020

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Oedipus Rex, and Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

Macbeth is by far my favorite Shakespearean play for several reasons, the most prominent of which is the supernatural element of the Witches and their prophecy which disrupts and changes the fates of the play’s characters. Beyond that, it is a remarkably short play; whose own brevity works to highlight the quick and desperate backslide into madness that is caused by the existence of the prophecy. Like other works of literature before it (such as Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex), Macbeth illustrates that prophecies and the actions that we take to avoid or fulfill them should be considered carefully and cautiously, i.e., what is the price of our actions/inaction.
The idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy was not a new concept to Shakespeare or his contemporaries. Earlier Greek plays and stories such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Within the play, King Laius, Oedipus’s father, receives a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi (oracles were, at the time considered the most accurate/trustworthy source of information on future events as they were directly linked to the Greek god Apollo and gifted the ability of future sight. As such, oracles were consulted for any number of small and great reasons. And the most famous and accurate of oracles was the Oracle of Delphi). The prophecy that King Laius received was that if his wife ever gave birth to a son, that his son would grow up and kill him and marry his mother, Jocasta. Once Oedipus is born King Laius tries to avoid the prophecy by ordering the death of his son. However, in doing so, he seals the future in which the oracle prophesized. Many Greek plays and stories of heroes are structured with the placement of a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, just as in Oedipus Rex the catalyst/source of the death, misery, and madness begins with prophecy…

FIRST WITCH
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
SECOND WITCH
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
THIRD WITCH
All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!”
“FIRST WITCH
Hail!
SECOND WITCH
Hail!
THIRD WITCH
Hail!
FIRST WITCH
Lesser than Macbeth and greater.
SECOND WITCH
Not so happy, yet much happier.
THIRD WITCH
Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!
FIRST WITCH
Banquo and Macbeth, all hail!
(Act 1 Scene 3)

By all means of rational thinking, the Witches were not a source by which Macbeth should not have trusted, in-so-much that all would have been well in his house had he not mulled over their words or told his wife that they had prophesized (which was, 1. That Macbeth would become the next thane of Cawdor, 2. That he would become king, and 3. That Banquo’s children would rule after Macbeth). The initial issues with this situation are the Witches; Macbeth does not know who these creatures are, he does not know what type of beings they are, and he does not know as to why they would tell him this in the first place or what they gain from doing so. But he becomes so focused on the lure of power (the lure of the crown), so enraptured by the tantalizing idea that he would become king that not only does he allow himself to begin to think of it as a distinct possibility, (he makes the clear choice to allow himself to become enrapture/seduced by the possibility of becoming the next king). And he is so blinded by the prophecy that he does not consider two crucial factors: 1. How will he become Duncan’s successor? and 2. Why will Banquo’s children gain the throne and not his own?
At this point in the play, it feels as if Macbeth is merely treating the encounter that he and Banquo had with the Witches as a strange/vivid hallucination and their prophecy as just an intriguing and fanciful dream (I say it this way because up until Macbeth speaks with his wife he has already contemplated how he would, in fact, become king and he cannot think of an answer that would make the second part of the prophecy true and instead mulls it over quietly, unsure of what he should do next).
After hearing the prophecy, Macbeth sends a letter to his wife detailing what the Witches told him. And upon reading the letter, Lady Macbeth begins to think of the significance of the prophecy and of ways in which she can assure that it comes to pass. That being said, I doubt very much that Lady Macbeth believes in the prophecy of the Witches, but in her own ambition clearly sees the opportunity that has been neatly laid before her and her husband (and why not, the Witches whether real or not, have already put the idea in Macbeth’s head).

Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal
(Act 1 Scene 5)

And she urges Macbeth to take action and seize the throne by committing murder, thus, setting off the chain of events that leads to their own downfall.
Both Oedipus Rex and Macbeth problematize knowing what the future will hold. And whether they wished for the outcomes to come true or not, the choices of these characters lead to a solid understanding of the types of consequences that are met when you wish to change/keep said outcome; and in doing so, also reveal the true danger that is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

Link to Text:
https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/macbeth/page_10/
Link to Image:
in.pinterest.com/pin/310115124325495631/

Twelfth Night, Masks, and Gender as Performance

Please note: this blog post contains reclaimed and academic instances of the term ‘queer,’ which I recognize has a history outside of academia and reclamation as a tool for hate speech and degradation in the past. If you are someone for whom this word may cause issue, please take heed.

Pictured: the painting "Peasants Celebrating Twelfth Night." 4

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is one of the Bard’s better known works and was originally created to be performed during celebrations of the Twelfth Night holiday (the last night of a 12-day period surrounding Christmas in some sects of Christianity). The romantic comedy is estimated to have been written in the very early 1600s (around 1600-1602, by most approximations), and tells the story of two near-identical twin siblings, Viola and Sebastian, who are involved in a wreck at sea and presume each other dead. Viola then disguises herself as a man named Cesario in order to serve under Duke Orsino, a nobleman presently lamenting his unrequited love for a woman in mourning—Olivia, who has veiled herself and vowed not to even consider romance or men for 7 years in grief over the deaths of her brother and her father. Viola, under the name and guise of Cesario, offers to speak to Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, and through their subsequent interactions, it quickly becomes clear to both the audience and to Viola herself that Olivia has fallen in love with her.

Viola grows close to Orsino under her assumed identity of Cesario (and has clear romantic tension with him), and her brother Sebastian meanwhile befriends an enemy of Orsino, a sea captain named Antonio. (There is also undeniable evidence of Antonio harboring romantic feelings for Sebastian.) After a series of wacky events and zany shenanigans fitting for a comedy and typically involving the themes of mistaken identity, the play ends with Olivia marrying Sebastian (in place of Cesario, who she loves, as if these feelings are easily transferable) and Orsino marrying Viola, who has revealed her true identity and reunited with her twin brother. (There is also a subplot involving multiple servants of Olivia conspiring together in a revenge plot against Olivia’s steward Malvolio, but as that is not very relevant to the topic I wish to touch upon, that is enough on that.)

Notably, gender as it is presented in Twelfth Night seems to read as more of a matter of performativity than anything else. Taking the historical context of the play into account, it might seem odd at first that Shakespeare was able to get away with as much as he was in this work. Particularly, the atmosphere it would have been performed in was an intensely homophobic one, and it might be assumed at first that it is only the socially acceptable resolution of these plot threads (with conventional straight marriages between characters previously involved in ‘gender confused’ homoerotic love triangle circumstances) that saves Shakespeare and this play from potential ire. However, I would argue instead that, while this more ‘conventional’ ending romance wise does help, the primary force that caused this play to be socially acceptable was the concept of gender as performance and how it contrasts with gender as a state of being.

Of course, the thought of gender as an act or a performance would not necessarily have been as alien a concept to Shakespeare’s contemporary audience as one might at at first assume; after all, there were no women actors at the Globe Theatre at the time (though there were women actors elsewhere in Europe—they were barred from this profession in England specifically), and viewers of the stage plays it featured had come to expect young boys to ‘perform’ the role of women already. 2 For this reason, it would be only natural for an audience like Shakespeare’s, already familiar with interpretation of an actor’s gender through performance but likely still aware subconsciously of the ‘true’ gender as a state of being of these actors (but consciously choosing to ignore it in favor of perceiving their performed genders at least on a conscious level), to have sympathetic and amused reactions to the apparent plights of Olivia and Orsino.

After all, it is very possible that (assuming audiences throughout history have, despite some generational differences, generally engaged with media in at least foundationally similar ways) some women in the audience might have understood the feeling of attraction (more in a literary and intellectual sense in the ways one might feel drawn to a fictional character, but attraction all the same) to a character presented to them as a woman, and understood that this was ‘justified’ due to the actor’s gender as state of being and not performance; conversely, some men in the audience might have allowed themselves to become drawn in by some of Shakespeare’s female characters (though admittedly, the men far outnumber them), and rationalized this through the concept of gender as performance and not state of being. (It’s worth mentioning, too, that LGBT people have existed in all time periods, and there were certainly at least some present in Shakespeare’s audiences over the years, but it is fairly likely that these people would have been forced into the closet perhaps even on a personal level due to the nature of the society they lived in.)

Therefore, gender in Twelfth Night exists not solely in the sphere of literal state of being nor solely in the sphere of performance, but simultaneously in both. It is worth noting the origin of the play’s name: not only is it relevant due to its creation as part of the Twelfth Night festivities in the real world, but the very concept of some of these festivities lines up quite well with themes of identity as performance contrasting with one’s ‘true’ masked or hidden identity. Though the holiday has now been largely forgotten in most places, the Twelve Days of Christmas as a festival was quite the colorful celebration, and involved most notably the idea of people donning masks, both literally and metaphorically, and assuming different roles. In England, people danced on the street and visited homes to request food and drink; these people were termed “Mummers,” which comes from the French word “momer”, or to wear a mask.1

Twelfth Night itself was the culmination of this 12-day-long festival, and often involved a whirlwind of merriment, feasting, drinking, and celebration to send the holiday off. David Teniers, a painter who captured images of the lives of commoners in Europe in the 17th century, has preserved a snapshot of the sort of role-switching festivities that were associated with Twelfth Night by that time; in his work “Twelfth Night (The King Drinks)”, we see tavern goers following a Twelfth Night practice that involved the crowning of one among the common patrons as ‘king’ for the night, and who received the appropriate social treatment in exchange for treating their fellow patrons to drinks. It has been proposed by some historians that mask wearing or other such ‘comic’ role switching festivities may have been encouraged by the Christian church, who may have initially suggested celebrators wear masks that particularly mocked or satirized deities seen as heretical such as Roman or Pagan gods (before the celebration evolved into something much broader).1

Pictured: the painting "Twelfth Night (The King Drinks)5

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in its layered presentation of gender and themes of masked identities, is thusly quite aptly named; much of the comedy revolves around the audience’s understanding that the characters are wearing various ‘masks’ (not only in Viola’s case, but in others, such as the subplot with the steward Malvolio ‘earning’ his comeuppance in the eyes of the audience through his assumption of a class role undeserved) and the resolution involving a subsequent ‘unmasking’ on both Viola’s and Sebastian’s parts. As Joseph H. Summers phrases it quite succinctly in his essay “The Masks of Twelfth Night”, published in Shakespearean Criticism: “the audience has been a participant in the festivity”.3 Therefore, in its use of thematic ‘masks’ for humor and entertainment, its presentation of gender as both a state of being and a performance (playing further into the concept of masks), and simply as a result of the historical context it existed in (which it was expertly crafted for), Twelfth Night has endured and remained influential for centuries, rather than being shot down in its infancy due to its controversial and potentially queer themes, as some might assume before learning the proper context.

 

Works Cited

  1. Levins, Sandy. “Understanding Twelfth Night: The Holiday that Time Forgot.” Camden County Historical Society, 3 Jan 2005, https://www.http://historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews93.shtml. Accessed 3 Dec 2020.
  2. McManus, Clare. “Shakespeare and gender: the woman’s part.” Discovering Literature: Shakespeare & Renaissance, British Library, 15 Mar 2016, https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/shakespeare-and-gender-the-womans-part. Accessed 2 Dec 2020.
  3. Summers, Joseph H. “The Masks of Twelfth Night.” Shakespearean Criticism, edited by Laurie Lanzen Harris, vol. 1, Gale, 1984. Gale Literature Criticism, https://link-gale-com.vortex3.uco.edu/apps/doc/FZVZMY300188710/LCO?u=edmo56673&sid=LCO&xid=3b71cbbc. Accessed 6 Dec. 2020. Originally published in The University of Kansas City Review, vol. 22, no. 1, Autumn 1955, pp. 25-32.
  4. Teniers the Younger, David. Peasants Celebrating Twelfth Night. 1635. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.53141.html. Provided by the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.
  5. Teniers the Younger, David. Twelfth Night (The King Drinks). 1634. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Web Gallery of Art, https://www.wga.hu/html_m/t/teniers/jan2/1/twelfthn.html.

Othello Cultural History.

Hey, guys! Today we’re going to talk about the play, Othello, and the cultural history behind this work. 

Since the beginning of time, the black experience has been complex and hard to look back on. 

Whether Shakespeare knew it or not, Othello became part of the black community’s culture the moment he wrote Othello as a black man. Othello is iconic for many reasons, the main reason being Shakespeare’s only play where he not only acknowledges a black person but includes them into his story. Though this implication is ambiguous, students of Shakespeare base this knowledge on Othello’s description in the play by other castmates. He is referred to as black, the moor, and his black features are brought up.

Before he even comes to the stage, we learn that Othello’s wife chose him over her father. Without explicitly saying so, we learn that Desdemona’s father isn’t fond of their relationship. In an article written by Kiernan Ryan, it is brought to the reader’s attention that the couple is enthralled by “the venomous rage of a society whose foundations are rocked by the mere fact of their marriage” (Ryan). Because of white men’s entitlement to Desdemona’s body, they mark Othello as an enemy. His existence becomes a threat to their masculinity and they don’t even regard Desdemona’s feelings. 

While reading this play, I realized that I had an issue with the relationship between Desdemona and Othello. During the time that this play was written, Othello was more than likely deemed the villain the moment the audience got the playbill or their love would be seen as something exotic and not real love. But the relationship between Desdemona and Othello plays into the stereotype of black men “stealing” white women from their husbands. Iago plans to plot against Othello based off of a rumor that he hears of him sleeping with his wife. To me, Iago thought that since Desdemona chose Othello that he would influence other women to chose a black man instead of a white one too. All of the odds were set against him before the character was even brought to the stage.

Though I believe that there should be stories written about black characters outside of their tragic cultural past, this play has racist undertones but erases oppression from his history. There’s no talk about how a white woman and a black man’s relationship together wouldn’t have been seen as normal, but instead, they sabotage it.

Iago, the true villain in this play, is the main one sabotaging their marriage by telling Othello that he knows that his wife is cheating on him. Othello becomes enraged and accuses his wife of cheating on him with Cassio. Throughout this whole time, Desdemona refuses to believe that something has gone wrong with Othello and he’d never be jealous about her while other people insist that he is. Sadly, things go sour between the two which ends up with the death of Desdemona. In another article by Andrew Dickson that I researched for, I saw how some actors have a problem with this part of the story along with other things. A British-Ghanian actor by the name of Hugh Quarshie says that “Of all the parts in the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should most definitely not be played by a black actor,” and that “doing so risked legitimising – in fact condoning – the racist stereotype of a black man” (Dickson). With this tragic ending along with other aspects of the play, many actors refuse to participate in the recreation of Othello. The character Othello started out as an outsider but an outsider who was wise, smart, and honorable then turns out to be a murderer. To me, Othello didn’t get the chance to become developed before he was written off as a murderer. He deserved the chance to be seen as something else and have a happy ending.

In a lecture that my Shakespeare class covered earlier this semester, Kim F. Hall touched on the fact that black scholars are policed when it comes to their love of Shakespeare just like they’re policed when it comes to their beings. The story of Othello is seen as the only play by Shakespeare that’s acceptable for black people to embrace. Kim F. Hall brings up that in an article, Toni Morrison was not seen as relatable to Shakespeare but seen as someone of the Elizabethan Era and a descendant of Othello. 

Even with its racist implications and undertones, many black scholars and theater lovers have taken Othello into their own hands and created what represented the black community. Taking this play and showing the multifacetedness of many actors, directors, and writers show how we are worthy of experiencing Shakespeare like our non-black counterparts. When looking at Shakespeare’s work, one can not overlook the racist and entitled history that comes with it. In the article written by Dickson, he points out that the first actor that played Othello was a white man who “have worn dark makeup, as actors in Britain did until the late 1980s” (Dickson). Though black individuals weren’t looked at as people that were worthy of telling their own stories, they were included in stories the way that non-black people wanted them to be. 

With Toni Morrison rewriting Othello to make Desdemona and actors such as Jessika D. Williams play Othello as a black woman, there are many creative adaptations of this play rewritten by black individuals. Othello can be seen as a story that’s been passed down from generation to generation for black people to mold into what they believe and want it to be. Black stories are for black people to retell and cherish. We deserve the chance to make Shakespeare into who we visualize him to be but also acknowledge the history. 

WORKS CITED. 

Dickson, Andrew. “Othello: the Role That Entices and Enrages Actors of All Skin Colours.” The British Library, The British Library, 16 Nov. 2015, www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/othello-the-role-that-entices-and-enrages-actors-of-all-skin-colours.

Ryan, Kiernan. “Racism, Misogyny and ‘Motiveless Malignity’ in Othello.” The British Library, The British Library, 11 Dec. 2015, www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/racism-misogyny-and-motiveless-malignity-in-othello.