‘Othello on Trial – Murderous Rage Today’ by Adrian Howe

Seeing Red: Possessive Love, Murderous Rage Today

A Youth Theatre Project

 Thwarted love, ambition, greed, jealousy, fear–if you want to write a story about a fundamental predicament, there is a Shakespeare play to fit the bill…his ability to take an emotion or a situation and push it to the limit helped create a cadre of plays that have been endlessly staged–and copied (Sally O’Reilly, ‘Top 10 novels inspired by Shakespeare’, The Guardian 30 April, 2014)

The killing of women by male partners and former partners, on average two a week in England and Wales over the last 30 years, surely rates as a ‘fundamental predicament’, one demanding long overdue elevation into a first-order social problem. This theatre project takes a novel approach to challenging the gendered relations that underpin violence against women. It utilises Shakespeare’s uncannily timely parodies of possessive jealousy and ‘infidelity’-inspired rage, putting them to work in dramatisations of gendered relationships today.

Emphasising the critical importance of primary prevention and attitudinal change, the plays and post-performance forums will provide a springboard for young people to express, at an interpersonal and social level, their views about sex, gender and violence and to address key related questions. Is attitudinal change needed?  If so, what kind and by what means?

Why a youth theatre project?

The ‘two-women-a-week’ killing statistic is attracting increased media attention thanks largely to the interventions of feminist activists using social media to count and name all the women killed by men each year.

This consistently high level of lethal violence against women by their intimate partners demonstrates that beyond protective measures for high-risk cases, long-term primary prevention measures are required before misogynist views become entrenched. Transformational educational resources pitched at young people are essential.

Theatre, a well-established means of promoting critical thinking, provides a space for experimenting with new ideas and behaviours. The plays in this project seek to promote healthy human relationships by challenging widely-shared, deeply-embedded cultural excuses for harming and murdering women. With minimal props and a small cast playing multiple roles that move back and forth across time from Shakespeare’s day to our own, the plays can be performed as ‘suit-case’ shows in youth theatres and schools.

 Why Shakespeare?

Not simply because he is curricula relevant. Simultaneously reproducing and unsettling conventional prejudices, Shakespeare’s plays work to transgressively raise questions about dominant cultural values. This method can be usefully redeployed in current debates about the importance of teaching ‘British values’–for example, moderation in the face of adversity as embodied in the Englishman’ stiff-upper lip. The master of exploring human fallibility through archetypal characters such as the jealous husband turns that presumed characteristic on its head.

In play after play from The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado about Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline to The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare queries men’s possessive and murderous rage against women. While Othello, that damning parody of a wife’s adultery as excuse for murder is the project’s obvious starting point, there’s also the near miss in Cymbeline, Posthumus’ foiled attempt to have his wife murdered over trumped up allegations of infidelity. As for The Taming of the Shrew, what better illustration is there of so-called ‘coercive control’—the financial, emotional and physical control still exercised by so many men over women that is currently a focus of attention of policy-makers intent on criminalising it.

The first play:  ‘Othello on Trial – Murderous Rage Today’

This theatre project’s first play weaves scenes from Othello, Shakespeare’s only play featuring an ‘infidelity’-inspired wife killing, with excerpts from historic and contemporary trials of English wife killers. The play substitutes a white for a black Othello and puts him trial for murder at the Old Bailey. Defence and prosecution arguments taken verbatim from trial transcripts are addressed to audiences taking the role of jurors. The defendant, a judge, prosecutor and defence lawyer will enact a courtroom drama that raises these key questions:

Should emotional turmoil─‘being wrought/Perplexed in the extreme’ as Othello puts it (or ‘seeing red’ as modern-day wife-killers put it)─mitigate murder today?

  • Is it time to reconsider the age-old distinction between cold-blooded murder and hot-blooded ‘crimes of passion’ that Shakespeare queried 400 years ago?

Why make Othello white?

Over the last 40 years, feminist law scholars have produced sustained criticism of the handling of wife-killing cases in criminal courts in all Anglophone jurisdictions. Focusing on provocation—for centuries the wife-killer’s preferred defence—they have revealed how victim-blaming provocation defences operate effectively as cultural defences for all men.

Othello changes colour in ‘Othello on Trial’ in order to subvert the usual presumption that cultural defences are deployed exclusively by minority ethnic defendants, indicatively ‘the base Indian’ or ‘malignant turbanned Turk’ that Shakespeare’s Othello ends up identifying with. The play showcases provocation by infidelity as a deeply ingrained cultural excuse for English wife-killers, as ‘our own version of honour killing’ as one law reformer put.

The play and post-performance open forums provide vehicles for young audiences to engage with the received view that so-called ‘crimes of passion’ are partially excusable and, more broadly, with the sexual politics that undergirds fatal violence against women today.

For further details and bookings please contact Adrian Howe a.howe@griffith.edu.au

 Othello on Trial  (Or:  The Tragedy of Desdemona, the Wife)

A rehearsed reading

 Cholmeley Boys’ Club, 68 Boleyn Road

London N16 8JG     http://hackneybuildings.org/items/show/19630

Sunday 30th November 

Doors open at 5pm. Refreshments available

Doors close at 5.50pm    Performance starts promptly at 6pm

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