In the mid-60s, Jan Kott wrote a truly horrible book called Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, in which he analyzes Shakespeare’s plays according to his specific point of view as a white European male who hasn’t quite grasped the humanity of the women and people of color around him, although, at the time, we just called that “Shakespeare criticism.”
When discussing the character Desdemona, a character whose complete faithfulness to her husband is the primary narrative linchpin of the play, Kott says, “Desdemona is faithful, but must have something of a slut in her.” He says that she must be a slut “in potentia” if not “in actua” because so many men desire her– because she inspired erotic imaginings in the men around her. SO SHE IS THE SLUT.
And while this kind of “my white male imagination tells me so” Shakespeare “analysis” we’re used to getting from the likes of mid-century scholars like Kott (and Harold Bloom, and so many others whose “analysis” of Shakespeare’s female characters is 100% flights of fancy) it stood out to me, even as a teenager when I first encountered this nonsensical “analysis.” It stood out to me that THIS IS AN ADMIRED BOOK OF SHAKESPEARE CRITICISM. This was the first moment I realized that the world of academia was going to be an uphill battle for me as a woman.
This moment– seeing a respected book of lit crit describe male desire for a woman who never sought nor wished for that desire as HER OWN FAULT for somehow being a “slut” “in potentia”– has come to mind again and again this election cycle.
Millions of our tax dollars have been poured out in a desperate attempt to pin something, ANYTHING, on Hillary Clinton. Nothing illegal has ever been found. Every investigation has exonerated her, and the Clinton Foundation is one of the highest-rated on every nonpartisan site that monitors charities. Obviously false scandals have been created by alt-right (and regular right) propagandists, and they’re shared around the internet as if they make sense. Scandal after scandal have been manufactured and debunked. Hillary haters are the hydra of American politics– chop off one false scandal and two grow back. There’s a never-ending supply of false scandals, and the factual evidence debunking them is dismissed as “irrelevant” or “bought and paid for.” As if the Clintons have an unlimited supply of money– oh, wait, according to the Hillary haters, THEY DO, thanks to Jewish bankers and the Evil Jewish Scrotillionaire Necromancer Lich Demon George Soros.
Hillary haters are forced, in the face of all the evidence exonerating her, to claim that the lack of evidence is the evidence. What is she hiding? It must be something! LOOK AT ALL THESE SCANDALS. Anyone who points to the facts is “bought and paid for” with all Clinton’s Jewish banker money, something I’ve been accused of myself multiple times. (I only wish someone was paying me to blog.)
And so we come back to Desdemona. SHE MUST BE SOME KIND OF SLUT. LOOK AT ALL THESE MEN LUSTING AFTER HER, reasons Jan Kott. EVEN IF SHE’S FAITHFUL TO HER HUSBAND, he continues, SHE’S STILL A SLUT, OTHERWISE WHY WOULD OTHELLO BELIEVE IAGO? Why indeed.
Kott blames Desdemona for the scandalous thoughts men have about her, and we blame Clinton for the scandalous thoughts we have about her.
“She’s too heaped in scandal,” “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” “There must be SOMETHING there,” “She’s clearly corrupt,” “One of the most corrupt politicians ever.” We dressed her in this outfit against her will, then condemned her for it.
Kott goes on:
Othello does not have to kill Desdemona. The play would be more cruel, if, in that final and decisive moment, he just left her. . . . Othello kills Desdemona in order to save the moral order, to restore love and faith. He kills Desdemona to be able to forgive her; so that the accounts be settled and the world returned to its equilibrium. Othello does not mumble any more. He desperately wants to save the meaning of life, of his life, perhaps even the meaning of the world. (123)
Kott– a respected Shakespearean critic– writes that killing a woman falsely heaped with scandal is the only way to “restore love and faith” and “the meaning of the world.” That men must use women as scapegoats for their own dark desires and imaginings and then kill them to restore order. Only dead can women be forgiven for “making” men have dark desires. This, again and again, returns to my mind as I see so many respected people– elected officials– calling for the murder of this woman who has borne the brunt of their imagined scandals, the congealed crust of hate and fear of powerful, independent, outspoken women.
And now I type the requisite sentences, the ones demanded of everyone who writes about Hillary Clinton and no other politician, ever: Do I agree with her every decision? No.
But we cannot productively discuss what kind of president she will be (and she will be president) in reality while we continue to make her the scapegoated center of 1000 false scandals. We cannot have productive discussions about foreign policy or ed policy– two areas we really need to be discussing right now– while the country is embroiled in a non-scandal about emails, or an alt-right created one about sex (take your pick).
Jan Kott is still taught. And respected newspapers are still running stories about Hillary’s emails, and the entire GOP is participating in a false story about voter fraud and a “rigged” election. The question is: Are we going to continue the Kott-like misogynistic scapegoating of this woman, or are we going to get to work on the actual issues?
“And now I type the requisite sentences, the ones demanded of everyone who writes about Hillary Clinton and no other politician, ever: Do I agree with her every decision? No.” This right here. This set of phrases is like a thorn in my side and yet I suffer it every time I come to Hillary’s defense. I did it this morning when I Facebook friend said there was one word why she didn’t trust/like her: Benghazi. Then I provided reasons, examples, and links as to why this is nonsense. Then I said this phrase or something similar, and you’re absolutely right. No one says this about Obama, and while he was/still is an excellent president, he’s still a person and therefore there’s going to be some disparity, but it’s like we’re forced to admit that Hillary is flawed before we even begin to defend her lest we be thought worse “sheeple” or blinded by her obvious indiscretions. Fantastic point along with others.
I recently saw an on-line video by Lindsay Ellis in which she examines the history of the perception of Hillary Clinton in the public eye. In short: when Bill first ran in ’92 and the Gennifer Flowers scandal broke out, Hillary had the public’s empathy for having to deal with a philandering husband. But once Bill got elected and Hillary became active in trying to get things done (most notably her health care push), she was perceived as this power-hungry she-bitch who’d violated the unspoken law of first ladies: “Be seen, not heard”.
In other words, for 24 years we’ve been told “it’s okay to hate Hillary” because she didn’t “stay in her place”.
Jan Kott’s take on Desdemona, and why Othello kills her, sounds like he is (or was) an adherent to what’s called an Honor Culture. Cultures where men kill their female relatives for “dishonoring” the family (usually by marrying outside the faith, marrying someone her father didn’t choose, having sex outside of marriage, or for being raped) — those are all Honor Cultures.
I can see why Othello, as a character, might be an adherent of Honor Culture. But Kott? Even in the ’60s? And how in the hell can he still be taught in schools? I shudder to think of what he wrote about people of color in Shakespeare.