I’ve just watched Othello at the National Theatre, which was a privilege, and which also made me see the play in an unsettling new light. Like many, I had never perceived the core of the play to be about racism, but jealousy. However, I was struck for the first time by the extent to which domestic violence pervades the narrative. Both the protagonists, Iago and Othello, murder their wives, having spent the entire play being largely dismissive of their opinions. Othello, for all his talk of loving Desdemona “not wisely, but too well” appears not to love Desdemona so much as the idea of her: even in death, she is somehow not fully human but, rather, is his “pearl”, with whom he has ultimately done as he pleased.
There are two main reasons, I think, why I am currently looking at Othello through an even grimmer lens than usual. The first, and most visceral, was the sight of Othello with his hands to Desdemona’s throat, which was uncomfortably resonant given the recent images of Charles Saatchi gripping the neck of his wife Nigella Lawson. The second, and no less troubling, was the recent release of a series of papers by the World Health Organisation; in which, reported the Associated Press, “experts estimated nearly 40 percent of women killed worldwide were slain by an intimate partner and that being assaulted by a partner was the most common kind of violence experienced by women.”
These papers, based on global studies made between 1983 and 2010, also found that “30 percent of women are affected by domestic or sexual violence by a partner.” Moreover, though there was some divergence in results between regions, the numbers remained brutal in their sheer weight:
“The rate of domestic violence against women was highest in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where 37 percent of women experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their lifetime. The rate was 30 percent in Latin and South America and 23 percent in North America. In Europe and Asia, it was 25 percent.”
When the lowest incidence of domestic violence worldwide is 23 per cent across an entire continent, then it’s pretty clear that we are dealing with, in the words of WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, “a global health problem of epidemic proportions”. These figures are compelling evidence of a systemic failure in the way that men are being brought up and otherwise socialised to relate to women. They reveal a global culture of misogyny so overwhelming that it is difficult for many of us to look it long in the eye.
Yet look at it long we must; and then deconstruct and dismantle it with forensic care. The National last night fell into the most horrified of silences as Othello slowly squeezed the life from Desdemona, an appropriate metaphor for the shame and denial that currently surrounds this culture. Meanwhile, this magnificent production was a reminder that theatre may be one of many highly effective tools for taking this culture to task; and, with that in mind, here’s to its continued success.