The upstart crow and why I feel I belong here

Many people drop out of education even where there are no financial or academic reasons for them to do so.  How can we explain this, and do something about it?

People from low socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic and cultural minorities, and women in fields such as physics and engineering can feel they do not belong. In developed countries it is often socio-economic status, rather than for example race and ethnicity, that is most associated with barriers to educational success.

Knowing why people feel they do not belong in an educational institution requires understanding how peoples’ identities interact with identities that institutions support.  Insights can come from someone who left school about age fifteen, who in an age of classical schooling had little Latin and less Greek, and whose knowledge of geography conferred a seacoast on Bohemia.

Shakespeare never went to university, unlike contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene.  Greene derided the young Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” who did not belong in the theatre, or no doubt in a university.

Othello is seen as a play about jealousy. It is at deeper levels a play about how one of an individual’s identities can be stigmatised in the eyes of those around him, and so amplified in external perception, and in their own internal self-reflection, that it leads to self-destruction.

Everyone has multiple identities, whether related to age, gender, race, religion, culture, family status, sporting, political or other affiliations.   A life challenge is to move between identities in ways that match them to context.

Othello is set in Venice at a time this trading city state was in conflict with the Turkish over Cyprus.  Venice in both Othello and the Merchant of Venice epitomises the emergence from hierarchal feudalism of cities based on market trade and meritocracy.  Like Shakespeare’s London, Venice was a city where people could rise from nowhere and become prosperous through their abilities rather than blood-line and inheritance.

Othello has several identities; as a Venetian state servant, an older male, a Christian, a Moor, and someone with an exotic cultural past.  However, the only identity that matters to the Duke of Venice and the senators is that of a revered Venetian general.  Othello has won the heart of a beautiful and young white woman, Desdemona.  Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, can see only a black man and not Othello’s other identities.

Othello has an evil and clever enemy, his ensign Iago, whom Othello has passed over for promotion in favour of another soldier, Cassio.  Rodrigo, a failed suitor for Desdemona, also resents Othello.

Rodrigo’s hatred for Othello is jealousy; Iago’s is dislike of the meritocracy that has seen Cassio promoted over his head.

IAGO: Forsooth, a great arithmetician, one Michael Cassio…the bookish theoric…Mere prattle without practice…’Tis the curse of service, preferment goes by letter and affection, and not by old gradation, where each second stood heir to the first.

Shakespeare himself was more prattle than practice.  He did not hew wood, draw water or wield swords, but combined words in ways rewarded in markets.  (He also transformed language, psychology, and human character in the process, but that is an aside).

Iago’s challenge is to detect and exploit Othello’s insecurities, cause him to falsely suspect people around him, and to manipulate him into self-destruction.  Iago intuits that Othello feels insecure due to his identity as a Moor, especially given he has married a white woman.

A key theme in the play is of people seeing, not seeing, or seeing only one part of someone’s identity so the whole person is not seen.  It is also about people being primed to see things that are not true and do not exist. Shakespeare in Othello is centuries ahead of psychological science in his understanding of framing, priming and choice architecture.

The Venetian authorities see Othello’s military identity as magnified in visibility.  At one stage the Duke greets Othello warmly, and then fails initially to see or acknowledge the Venetian senator Brabantio.

DUKE: Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you…  [To Brabantio]: I did not see you.

Othello is a play that grapples with what people are, compared to how they are perceived or painted by others.  Iago himself says: I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Shakespeare weaves into Othello images of gardening. Iago is a gardener who cultivates the destructive parts of human nature. It is also possible to foster life through “gardening”, to see through people’s outward identities to their uniqueness, and to focus on their strengths and make their weaknesses irrelevant.  This is what excellent teachers do.

Othello begins with a conversation between Iago and Rodrigo about a mysterious and typecast figure called “the Moor”.  The Moor has no name.  He is unseen as a person.  He is referred to only as a brutish type with “thick lips”.  This is the prejudice instilled in the audience before Othello even comes on the stage.  Only later when Othello appears does it become clear he is dignified, intelligent, of high character, and revered in wealthy and powerful Venetian society.

The audience therefore has to choose whether to believe the word picture painted by Iago and Rodrigo or to see the real Othello on the stage.  There is no greater debunking of prejudice in all of literature than the way Shakespeare forces the audience to do the work and to judge on the evidence from the stage.

Iago exploits Rodrigo’s jealousy over Desdemona.  He and Rodrigo incite Brabantio against Othello, using crudely racist language in doing so.  Iago tells Brabantio:

…you have lost half your soul…an old black ram is tupping your white ewe…you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you…I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs

Brabantio cannot believe his daughter could fall in love with a black man, and accuses Othello of witchcraft or potions that have destroyed Desdemona’s judgement:

She is abused, stolen from me and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks; for nature so preposterously to err, being not deficient, blind or lame of sense, sans witchcraft could not.

Brabantio also argues that Othello marrying his daughter will undermine the Venetian state.

For if such actions may have passage free, bond slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.

These words suggest fears for the state and society, and may be as much about economic class (“bond slaves”) as race.  They are not fears shared by the Duke or the other senators, who see Othello as one of their own.

Othello defends himself in front of the Duke, in a way that highlights Shakespeare’s preternatural genius in conveying meaning through language’s subtlest sounds.

Shakespeare uses tone and cadence to give away barely discernible micro-clues, such as someone losing confidence in himself. Much of Shakespeare’s work is in iambi pentameter, where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one, as in as long lives this and this gives life to thee. This creates a soothing dum-de-dum rhythm like a heartbeat.

When Shakespeare departs from this he signals a change in mood, action, or in a character’s innermost thoughts. Othello’s speech to the Venetian Senate begins:

Most potent, grave, and reverend seigniors, my very noble and approved good masters…

These lines are discordant and do not follow a soothing rhythm. The weak endings jar as Othello unconsciously signals to the senators his inner doubt as whether he is their equal, despite being so in formal standing. How common it is for people in educational or other institutions to feel such self-doubt, an equivocation and an ill-ease, an inner voice asking “are you not a fraud? You don’t belong here, do you?”

Othello is a highly respected Venetian state servant.  The Venetian state accepts multiple identities and can reward one identity and ignore other identities that do not detract from it.  However, the state does not fully reflect the society that surrounds it.  Othello shows how vulnerable a person can be if his equality in law and rights is not complemented by a deep social belief in this equality from the people surrounding him.

Othello defends his love before the Duke, the senators and Brabantio.  He recounts his exotic life history that has helped him win Desdemona.

Of being taken by the insolent foe and sold to slavery, of my redemption thence and portance in my travels’ history, wherein of antres vast and deserts idle, rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven it was my hint to speak – such was the process – and of the cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi…my story being done, she gave me for my pains, a world of sighs, she swore, in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange…she wished that heaven had made her such a man…she loved me for the dangers I had passed and I loved her that she did pity them.  This only is the witchcraft I have used.

Othello’s exotic story differentiates himself, but also makes him vulnerable because its mystery and remoteness can trigger a fear of the unknown.  However his romantic narrative is validated by Desdemona, the Duke and senators.

Like Cordelia in King Lear, Desdemona defies her father in making clear that she cannot give all her love to her father if she is also to love her husband.  The Duke of Venice and the senators endorse the love between Othello and Desdemona.  In concluding his judgement favouring Othello and Desdemona the Duke urges Brabantio to accept what has happened and move on:

When remedies are past, the griefs are ended/ by seeing the worst, which late in hopes depended/To mourn a mischief that is past and gone/is the next way to draw new mischief on/what cannot be preserved when Fortune takes/patience her injury a mockery makes/The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief/he robs himself that spends a bootless grief.

The Duke of Venice would have made an interesting chairman of the Waitangi Tribunal!

The Duke’s final words to Brabantio signal that Othello’s high standing as a military leader, state servant, and above all as a man override any identity he has as a black man:

…noble signior, if virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

These words however still imply that blackness is perceived as negative, if it is not overridden by other positive identities.

There is a testy exchange between Iago and Desdemona where Iago’s “wit” reflects his misogyny as well as his cultural prejudice:

IAGO:…You are pictures out of doors, bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.

DESDEMONA: O, fie upon thee, slanderer!

IAGO: Nay it is true, or else I am a Turk: you rise to play and go to bed to work…If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit, the one’s for use, the other useth it.

DESDEMONA: Well praised!  How if she be black and witty?

IAGO: If she be black, and thereto have a wit, she’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.

The association between fair skin and beauty and goodness was embedded in English culture in Shakespeare’s time, with Shakespeare challenging it in sonnets 127 and 130.

Shakespeare gave black and Jewish people a presence on the stage at a time when society had not mandated it.  He made culture, racial and political identities subservient to other universal human affinities such as love, friendship and pity.

Shakespeare did not believe in blood-line identity and privilege any more than he believed in the divine right of kings, the right of authority to tongue-tie his art, hubristic honour, the law’s delay, or the proud man’s contumely.

Shakespeare disparaged family blood-line affiliations in Romeo and Juliet.  In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s common humanity is seen despite his uncommon inhumanity.  Morocco, a black, is a credible suitor for Portia (who disparages Neopolitan, Palatine, French, English and German suitors and comes across in places more like a snobbish legal pedant than as a voice of merciful justice). Shylock’s daughter Jessica marries a Christian, defying racial, cultural and religious taboos in doing so.

The Nazi regime banned Othello.  The American strictures against miscegenation  meant that until the mid-twentieth century Othello was played by white actors, or those of indeterminate racial identity.  Paul Robeson felt that playing Othello on the stage as a black man liberated him from racism.

The great Afro-American writer Maya Angelou wrote that reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, as a little black girl who had been abandoned by her parents and abused, saved her life by speaking for her.  It connected her to Shakespeare, and then to great literature, and this saved her self-regard and gave her the intellectual foundation for her stellar literary career.

Shakespeare’s own father, like Dickens’s, fell on hard times.  Shakespeare himself would have felt the disgrace of fathering his first child out of wedlock at age eighteen.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes/ I all alone beweep my outcast state/ and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries/ and look upon myself and curse my fate/ wishing me like to one more rich in hope/featured like him, like him with friends possessed/ desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope/ with what I most enjoy contented least/ yet in these thoughts myself almost despising/ haply I think on thee, and then my state/ like to the lark at break of day arising/ from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate/ for thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/that then I scorn to change my state with kings’.

This poem captures the feelings of those who stand alone and friendless with luck against them and society looking down upon them.  It restores their spirits when they reflect it was written by the only truly universal human genius, who was once on the bottom, with them.

Brabantio accepts Desdemona’s affirmation of her love for Othello, however his parting remarks contribute to Othello’s later suspicion of his wife’s fidelity:

Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see; she has deceived her father, and may thee.

It can take just a few seeds of self-doubt to grow and overwhelm one’s trust in oneself, in others, and in the world.

Desdemona sees past the image of an admired military leader (and of course past colour), and sees the authentic soul of a man she loves as himself.  I saw Othello’s visage in my mind.  As Othello says, she had eyes and chose me.  However, Othello had been primed by a society to suspect himself, denying him the opportunity to truly love himself, and let others love him.  Iago himself says “I never found man that knew how to love himself.”

Brabantio’s words make it easy for Othello to believe Iago’s later insinuations that Desdemona has been unfaithful.  Iago’s skill is to get Othello to think things that he does not want to think, and to make conscious subconscious doubts he has about himself and about Desdemona’s fidelity.  Underlying this is Othello’s own doubt about his racial identity and his age compared to Desdemona:

for I am black/and have not those soft parts of conversation/that chamberers have, or that I am declined/into the vale of years

Othello worries about how he is perceived and what others may be doing or saying behind his back, while the moon winks.

Iago’s manipulations mean that Othello loses the ability to see Desdemona’s love.  He fails to see what is there, and “sees” only what is not there.

Iago cloyingly says to Othello that “men should be what they seem…beware, my lord, of jealousy!  It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on”. 

Othello cannot self-determine because he is competent and autonomous on a battlefield but lacks social relationships and networks that traverse different identities and lets him switch between them as the context changes.  He lacks deep friendships outside his military and state servant circle, and has not established trusting family relationships outside his marriage, for example with his father-in-law.  He cannot fall back on cultural and racial peers in Venice.

Iago isolates Othello from his ensign and friend by getting Cassio drunk, knowing he will disgrace himself.   Cassio regrets that man should put an enemy in their mouths, to steal their brains.  Othello has no choice but to sack him.  Iago then manipulates Desdemona into speaking up in Cassio’s defence, thus cultivating Othello’s suspicion that Cassio is having a love affair with her.

The stigma Othello had been subject to was ego-depleting and allowed Iago to seed and fuel his suspicions and therefore corrode Othello’s judgement.  Iago dupes his wife Emelia into stealing a handkerchief that Othello had given to Desdemona.  This handkerchief is a trifle, but is steeped in Othello’s cultural narrative and connects him to his exotic past lifeAs Iago says:

Trifles as light as air/are to the jealous confirmations strong as holy writ.

Iago is able to link this love token to Cassio and therefore to provide the ocular proof that confirms Othello’s doubts about Desdemona’s fidelity.

When Othello finally snaps, he breaks with his military life and with a core identity:

Farewell the tranquil mind!  Farewell content!!  Farewell the plumed troop and the big wars that make ambition virtue.  O, farewell, farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war… Farewell!  Othello’s occupation’s gone!

Othello farewells his military occupation and identity and can move to no other and live and let live.

As Desdemona sees Othello’s deteriorating psychological state she recalls a family memory:

My mother had a maid called Barbary; she was in love, and he she loved proved mad and did forsake her.  She had a song of “willow”; and she died singing it.  That song tonight will not go from my mind; I have much to do but to go hang my head all at one side and sing it like poor Barbary…

Shakespeare may be suggesting that Desdemona’s mother had a black maid (“Barbary”) who may have paved the way for Desdemona’s ability to love a black man.  Desdemona sings the song she remembers, vaguely reminiscent of Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s drowning:

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree/sing all of a green willow/ her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee/ sing willow, willow, willow/ The fresh streams ran by her, and murmured her moans/ sing willow, willow, willow/ her salt tears fell from her, and softened the stones…sing all a green willow must be my garland/ Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve.

Othello’s thoughts turn to murder:

Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.  Put out the light, and then put out the light.  If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore, should I repent me; but once put out the light, thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature, I know not where is that Promethean heat that can thy light relume.  When I have pluck’d the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again…

The ultimate proof of Desdemona’s fidelity and her love for Othello comes as she lies dying from his violence.

EMELIA: Who hath done this deed?

DESDEMONA: Nobody; I myself.  Farewell; commend me to my kind lord.

Desdemona absolves her husband of her murder in her last words, forgiving him.

Emelia exposes Iago’s trickery and culpability and Iago murders her.  After he has killed Desdemona, Othello has destroyed his future and decides to kill himself.   His choice of last words will determine which of his multiple identities he wishes to be remembered for.

Soft you, a word or two before you go.  I have done the state some service, and they know it.  No more of that.  I pray you, in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.  Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well; of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, albeit unused to the melting mood, drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees their medicinal gum.  Set you down this; and say besides, than in Aleppo once, where a malignant and a turbaned Turk, beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I …smote him, thus.  [Stabs himself]…

Othello’s farewell speech affirms his identity not as a black, an exotic Moor or a Christian but as a Venetian state servant.  It is this identity, not race, ethnicity or cultural background that he wants to be remembered for.  He has affirmed the identity through which he has achieved standing in a society that he was otherwise a stranger to.

After he has stabbed himself, Othello’s last thoughts and words are for his wife whose death has extinguished the last light in his world:

I kissed there ere I killed thee.  No way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

The Venetian senators punish Iago for his treachery and for his wife’s murder.  They validate Othello.  In doing so they accept Othello as one of their own, even though some of his identities differed from theirs.  Their fairness and respect for Othello auger well for the European Enlightenment that came after Shakespeare’s time and which he helped seed.

What practical lessons can we draw from Othello?  Meritocracy should prevail over primogeniture or hierarchal privilege.  People should express their identity which best matches a context.  Othello should not try to succeed as a Moor outside a Moor cultural context, any more than he should be warlike outside his military life.

Educational advancement depends on stretching people and challenging them to move beyond themselves.  If people look inwardly and narrowly within a closed group they limit learning, intellectual stretch, cut themselves off from wider identities and networks and forego future opportunities in life. They also expose themselves to affinity fraud.

However, people are hard-wired to recognize cues of coalitional identity of any sort.  Although cultural and racial differences are only skin deep they are also obvious and can trigger group affiliations.

Cultural or racial group identities may help some people who would otherwise feel isolated, and bolster their defences against stereotypical threat.  These identities can be a hook into educational recruitment and retention and help sustain students to the point where they can develop richer and more diverse identities and then a paramount focus on their academic identity.

Educational institutions must be both identity-congruent and identity-multiplicative.  They must connect with at least one of a student’s identities, and then foster pathways to others.  If a student then has a sense of belonging setbacks will not be attributed to identity and will be overcome.

Culture, race and socio-economic background can still matter in education, even if we would like to assume them away.  Affirmative action may be needed. This is not to exacerbate differences between people, but to help them to see what Shakespeare saw, that the only true light in the darkness comes from universal human affinities, without which it is put out the light and then put out the light, and then regret it.


About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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