Just like Othello and David Beckham, we see only the best in ourselves

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There was a good South Bank Show the other week about Othello, timed to coincide with the play's 400th anniversary. Normally I enthuse about a South Bank Show only if I'm in it, but you can't begrudge Shakespeare. Can't begrudge any dead writer, come to that. It's seeing living ones getting praise that hurts. Because there is room for only one serious writer at a time in our culture, I think all the rest should be shipped out somewhere sunny when it's not their turn. And I think The South Bank Show should pay their fares. The Othello programme was stimulating, anyway, not least when it came to watching critics either skirting round the issue of race or walking headlong into it. My own sympathies on the race issue were with Jonathan Miller who thought the play wouldn't have been materially different had Othello been as white as Iago.

There was a good South Bank Show the other week about Othello, timed to coincide with the play's 400th anniversary. Normally I enthuse about a South Bank Show only if I'm in it, but you can't begrudge Shakespeare. Can't begrudge any dead writer, come to that. It's seeing living ones getting praise that hurts. Because there is room for only one serious writer at a time in our culture, I think all the rest should be shipped out somewhere sunny when it's not their turn. And I think The South Bank Show should pay their fares. The Othello programme was stimulating, anyway, not least when it came to watching critics either skirting round the issue of race or walking headlong into it. My own sympathies on the race issue were with Jonathan Miller who thought the play wouldn't have been materially different had Othello been as white as Iago.

Anathema, that, to those who saw the play as about colour pure and simple and then found themselves, circularly, having to wonder whether Shakespeare wasn't a bit of a racist. It's academically fashionable to start with everything that comes before the play - Elizabethan politics, Elizabethan cultural assumptions, the Elizabethan mindset - and then reason unreasonably that the play must illustrate those. Thus every novel that is written today will be read by scholars 400 years from now as illustrative of our hatred of America and belief in the regenerative powers of the children's story. Whereas the truth of it is that some of us hate children's stories more than we hate America. Jonathan Miller was wrong to say that Othello's colour was neither here nor there - the Othello "music" resonates with the play of colour - but right to assert that jealousy, impure and simple, was at the heart of it, not black jealousy or white jealousy, but viridescent jealousy; the green-eyed, sex-mad, filthy-minded monster. A subject which seemed to engage Shakespeare, whether or not it engaged the rest of Elizabethan England, more than any other.

It's David Beckham, of course, who has brought Othello and The South Bank Show to mind, David Beckham suddenly rounding on the popular press - biting the hand that feeds him, as they see it - in defence of his wounded honour. "I'm actually a nice person," he declared wanly, for all the world to hear. I know exactly how he feels. So does every man. So, even, does Othello. "I pray you, in your letters," he tells the gob-smacked Venetian nobility (Desdemona lying throttled in her bed, stage left), "When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, / Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,/ Nor set down aught in malice." Which, give or take the odd verbal flourish, was exactly what Beckham was asking of the press. "Then must you speak," he goes on - Othello that is, not Beckham - "of one that loved not wisely but too well; / Of one not easily jealous..."

That being the moment when those of us who studied Othello with F R Leavis would explode with moral indignation. One not easily jealous - you! Loved not wisely but too well - you! Unlucky deeds! "Unlucky"! Pull the other one, Othello! Or, as Leavis himself preferred to put it, "A habit of approving self-dramatisation is an essential element in Othello's make-up, and remains so at the very end ... contemplating the spectacle of himself, Othello is overcome with the pathos of it."

We were hot on the tail of self-dramatisation in Cambridge in the 1960s. We gave no quarter to men aroused to pity by the pathos of themselves. There are those who say that theory came about precisely in order to stop prigs like us from approaching Shakespeare as an exercise in meting out reproofs and reprobations. But in fact theory came about because there were suddenly more universities teaching literature than there were people capable of reading it. That apart, I do feel twinges of shame today recalling the sort of snitty critic I once was - I, not F R Leavis - and like to think, now that the pathos of my own life is spread out before me like the Pacific before the eagle eyes of stout Cortez (another controversial Real Madrid signing), that I can accept the commonality of self-forgiveness, and understand the impulse to see ourselves not as others sees us - which is never just - but as others don't. Call it sublime egotism if you like, call it blindness or self-delusion, but the truth is that if we feel we are nicer than the world judges us to be, that is probably because we are.

It's no coincidence that most of Shakespeare's heroes think that way about themselves - Hamlet, Antony, Coriolanus, Lear, you name them. They can't all be studies in self-ignorant aggrandisement. Macbeth is different, I grant you, which might be why we recognise less kinship with him, yet accord him a more terrible admiration. But to earn that he has had to steep himself in innocent blood and not permit his imagination to extenuate a drop of it. For the rest of us, guilty of a peccadillo here, and, all right, the occasional cruel, treacherous, and maybe even abominable act there, our transgressions are not so awful as to exclude us from the human family.

You can see why the monstering of poor Beckham - who is there only to take free kicks, not to be a sophisticated moral being - has left the lad bemused. Someone kicks him, yellow card. He kicks back, red card. The rules are clear. Later the kicker and the kicked will enjoy a drink together. Not so, in our delicate times, with sex. We talk of nothing else. Publish magazines about it for tiny tots. Simulate and stimulate it on television. Build our entire culture around it. But let someone actually "do" it and all hell breaks loose.

Of course Beckham's a nice person. He's a man. All men are nice people. "Now cracks a noble heart," says Horatio of Hamlet. "Good night, sweet Prince." Exactly how we see ourselves. Noble. Sweet. Nice.

Comments