Shakespeare would say that #BlackLivesMatter

7 Jul

Today I am struggling to find words. Words are the things I use all the time. They are where I am most comfortable, most at home. I feel safe in words.

Today I am struggling, not only to find words, but to feel safe in a world where people are being summarily executed for… nothing. For having skin that does not match mine. For wearing a scarf. For not wearing a scarf. For telling a man “No” when asked on a date. For loving someone of the same gender presentation. For presenting as a gender different from the one designated when they were born.

Today I am saddened and horrified by the shootings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and the bombings in Iraq and Turkey to a degree that is somehow different–and greater–than many of the other atrocities which have unfolded across the nation and around the globe. Perhaps it is simply because this is the point at which it is too much. But I think, strangely, it is because yesterday I was reading about Othello.

This may seem strange, and, I admit, completely unrelated, but as an early modern scholar, I see many things in this post-modern, highly technological world through the lens of Shakespeare (and his contemporaries), so please bear with me. Yesterday, I read a chapter in a book entitled English Renaissance Drama and the Specter of Spain by Eric J. Griffin that was about Othello, and I learned something that I feel should have been explained to me the first time I read the play, not five years after I defended my dissertation.

That thing is about Iago, the play’s unquestioned villain. Griffin explains that Iago’s name comes from Sant-Iago:

Sant-Iago, the patron saint of Spain—who had intervened at the battle of Clavijo in 844, who had been invoked as Roderigo El Campeador [El Cid] reconquered Valencia during the 1090s, and who was shortly to become known across the globe on “grounds Christen’d and heathen” as Saint James, the Moor-killer [Santiago Matamoros]. (Griffin 179)

In Griffin’s argument, Iago is a villain precisely because he is the patron saint of Spain, and that his name–James–links him to King James I, who, in 1604, had just cemented a tentative peace between England and Spain, its hitherto archenemy.

Today, Santiago Matamoros has a different resonance for me. In Shakespeare’s play, Iago is a military officer whose role is to preserve the peace, to protect the innocent, and–yes–to save his people from the violence of the infidel. But he is also an unquestioned villain, a man whose primary (and largely unmotivated) purpose is to destroy Othello’s life simply because he hates Othello for reasons which make very little sense, even in the context of the play. Iago is a Mata-moros, a “moor-killer,” whose sole purpose in Othello is to cause Othello’s (the Moor of Venice) death.

Today, Iago is a suicide-bomber willing to destroy hundreds of Muslim lives for the sake of a radical nationalistic ideology, a police officer so conditioned to believe that he has the power, the authority, and the right to make life-or-death decisions that he doesn’t care if (and in fact enjoys it when) he kills an innocent black man.

Shakespeare’s Iago is a figure for what we should all strive not to be. A bigot. An extremist. A misogynist. A racist. A murderer.

After today, I will never teach Othello the same way again. I will have to explain to my students that we have created a society in which this play is repeated on a daily basis. In which our Santiagos kill our Othellos and our Emilias and our Desdemonas every day, whether they pull the trigger themselves or authorize someone else to do so. And by staying silent, by diminishing the scope of the problem or saying #NotAllMen and #AllLivesMatter, we enable Iago to continue to plant the (strawberry) seeds of discord and violence.

Because, today, I realize that Iago is not a devil, an iconic villain who has no real-world corollary because he is too evil to be real. Iago is very real. We all know Iagos, just as we know Othellos and Emilias and Desdemonas and Michael Cassios and Brabantios (black men, victims of domestic abuse, victims of sexual assault, oblivious white men, and conservative-but-nonviolent bigots, respectively). It is therefore on us, as players in this tragedy, to change the script before the inevitable self-destructive ending is upon us.

It’s time for us to realize that we have to be the ones to rewrite our own story, our own history, to be something other than a tragedy of race and gender and identity in which everyone who has even a scrap of nobility ends up dead. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, Iago is still alive, a fact that has always puzzled me.

Not today. Today I realize that the message of Othello is that Iago is still alive, and that it is up to us to stop him, because black lives do matter.

#BlackLivesMatter #YesAllWomen #NoMoreIago