A quote from Marcus Nordlund – about jealousy in `Othello’ from a chapter in Evolution, Literature, Film: A Reader (2010) and some thoughts on the (amazing) top 20 RoI movie, Primer (2002).
`Anyone who reads up on modern accounts of sexuality or sexual jealousy in English Renaissance literature is soon struck by the predominance of a single mode of explanation, which we have come to know as social constructivism…
When we turn to the literary text [Othello], I hope to show that a combination of the biocultural perspective on human nature with some hermeneutical awareness can serve as a strong corrective to excessive literary reductionism (either biological, cultural, or otherwise).
My ulterior purpose will thus be essentially negative: to show that Shakespeare’s text is far more enigmatic, mysterious, and interesting than some previous critics have claimed…
Since claustration practices have developed independently among humans on all five continents, and still survive in parts of the Islamic world, it would appear that humans have not been averse to such tactics either.
But two other human phenomena – a comparatively high degree of male parental investment and the fact that females have concealed ovulation – provide particularly important clues to the nature of jealousy…
In one of the finest book-length studies [of Othello] to date, Jane Adamson finds it “remarkable how explicitly the play dramatizes and explores the ways and means by which different people `make sense’ of what happens in their lives, including what they merely imagine to be happening.”
This preoccupation spreads from the intratextual level to include the audience’s attempts to make sense of what we see before us…
[Othello’s] basic problem is… that he has been sufficiently attractive enough to attract a very attractive woman who is likely to attract a substantial number of very attractive men.
We can conclude from this that the jealous man in these Shakespeare plays [Othello and The Winter’s Tale] is not a discursive construct specific to the early modern period…
But let us pause right here, just before we raise the biocultural flag and proceed to celebrate Shakespeare as the world’s first literary exponent of gene-culture interactionism.
For the question remains whether this string of psychological causes – for all its textual and theoretical support – can really be regarded as a sufficient cause for the singularly violent and destructive jealousies that Shakespeare depicts.
Is it convincing to suppose that most powerful men who marry beautiful women whom they love deeply will sooner or later turn jealous to the point of murder?
… To “explain” Othello’s murder of his wife in a satisfying manner would be to show that his actions are actually quite plausible or even predictable given a certain conception of human nature or the specific situation he finds himself in. But in real life, let alone art, we would be hard pressed to find a concept of human nature that could serve such a purpose since this theory would have to deny the extraordinary complexity – both biological and social – that creates human universals as well as individual and cultural variation…
But what Shakespeare treats us to in Othello and The Winter’s Tale is not everyday jealousy or a stage version of the average Elizabethan man. He confronts us with the horrifying individual exception rather than the psychological rule.
The scary and interesting thing about Shakespearean jealousy, then, is that its deepest mystery cannot be explained away. We cannot assign it to a barbaric and unenlightened past, to a pathological insecurity that can be eradicated by equal doses of therapy and social change, or to some hard-wired mate-killing module.
And therein, I suppose, lies its perennial horror and fascination.’
Othello is a `Villain Triumphant’ story. (The good guys don’t win.) Othello, in his prolonged fit of jealous rage smothers Desdemona for (believed) adultery – and stabs himself to death. In terms of cause-and-effect, this was all caused by Iago deciding to get revenge on Othello, for promoting Cassio above him. So – in Nettle’s terms, it’s a `status game’ for Iago, and also, a revenge story. (Iago getting his revenge.) In another way, about (1) Survival, (2) Reproduction and (3) Revenge.
What Othello also illuminates is: Just how complex human nature and human behaviour can be given certain circumstances. Everyone assumes they know `what is going on in the world’, operating on – and making decisions using – the best information they have, at the time. Sometimes – this information is wrong.
But human nature includes jealousy, and as Nordlund indicates, probability affects almost everything – If you marry an extremely attractive woman (and therefore feel a little – or a lot – insecure) your mind can play tricks on you, and stuff can `eat away at you’ and it certainly doesn’t help if some spiteful a-hole called Iago is whispering a load of lies in your ear…!
Interestingly (in terms of Creativity and say, novelty/originality), Othello – like a lot of Shakespeare’s plays – was inspired by/based on an earlier work, Cinthio’s “A Moorish Captain” from Gli Hecatommithi (1565), a collection of one hundred tales. Many people assume to be creative a wholly original story idea needs to be created, but clearly Creativity doesn’t work that way… Combining old and successful memes (ideas) is better than taking radical, original, fresh “new” ideas. (Insert something here about Nothing new under the sun, etc)
This all puts me in mind of a whole bunch of Stanley Kubrick’s quotes, so – here they are:
Michel Ciment: You are an innovator, but at the same time you are very conscious of tradition.
Kubrick: I try to be, anyway. I think that one of the problems with twentieth-century art is its preoccupation with subjectivity and originality at the expense of everything else. This has been especially true in painting and music. Though initially stimulating, this soon impeded the full development of any particular style, and rewarded uninteresting and sterile originality. At the same time, it is very sad to say, films have had the opposite problem — they have consistently tried to formalize and repeat success, and they have clung to a form and style introduced in their infancy. The sure thing is what everyone wants, and originality is not a nice word in this context. This is true despite the repeated example that nothing is as dangerous as a sure thing.
`Films deal with the emotions and reflect the fragmentation of experience. It is thus misleading to try to sum up the meaning of a film verbally.’
(Kubrick in Castle, 2005, p. 304)
`The feel of the experience is the most important thing, not the ability to verbalize or analyse it.’
Nordlund’s analysis of Othello also puts me in mind of the top 20 RoI film, Primer.
(Notably – one of the findings of StoryAlity Theory is that all top 20 RoI film key creators were writer-hyphenates, as, they not only wrote – but also had another role on the film… eg Director, or Actor, or Producer, etc.
We can infer: it pays to stay `involved in production’ to realize your story vision.) Shakespeare was apparently very involved in the mounting of his plays at The Globe Theatre…
In the story (Primer) there is, among other motivations, the idea (the strong suggestion) that: (the single) Abe is jealous of Aaron’s family life (wife and child, etc)…
In general – most people (certainly including myself) need to watch the film (Primer) about 5 times before they feel they fully understand what is actually going on in that film – including Aaron’s motivations and actions. (See Nordlund’s point about people assuming they know/understand `what just happened’…)
Not least – one reason for this, being – the non-linear structure of the film – as it involves a realistic attempt at a treatment of time-travel…
Yet – even if we can’t rationally fully understand what is going on in the plot, the emotion of the film – even on first viewing – is incredibly powerful. Primer is an amazing film, and – I would contend – is still the most intelligent time-travel film ever made. (I also recommend watching it with subtitles on, as some people also find the dialog hard to follow.)
One obvious problem with another time-travel film The Time Machine (2002) adapted from HG Wells story, is the montage/time passing scene where we see London evolving around the time machine… (Surely, the inhabitants of London would find it remarkable that a time machine was sitting there in full view, for years…? Yet, this isn’t addressed in that film…)
Finally – returning to Othello, and another salient Kubrick quote (admittedly, about film and television, but many film/TV adaptations of Othello have certainly been created, including a film with acting theory legend Stanislavski as `the moor’):
Kubrick: `There is no positive evidence that violence in films or television causes social violence. To focus one’s interest on this aspect of violence is to ignore the principal causes, which I would list as:
1. Original sin: the religious view.
2. Unjust economic exploitation: the Marxist view.
3. Emotional and psychological frustration: the psychological view.
4. Genetic factors based on the ‘Y’ chromosome theory: the biological view.
5. Man, the killer ape: the evolutionary view.
To try to fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis, in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures.‘
Certainly all of the above 5 reasons can obviously apply to many instances of real-world violence. That is to say – some people kill for religious reasons; some for reasons of unjust economic exploitation; some for emotional and psychological frustration reasons (see: Othello); some kill due to genetic factors (e.g. say,serial killers, psychopaths and sociopaths – who are perhaps born with a brain-chemistry that means they don’t have enough empathy or conscience), and of course – `man – the killer ape’ – or, the fact that we are still a primate with certain evolved instincts that can be (though are not necessarily always) triggered in certain highly unusual circumstances.
There are also clearly many more reasons why people kill – but Kubrick has certainly listed out 5 of the frequently-occurring ones. Sometimes it’s biology, sometimes it’s culture (e.g. religion), and sometimes both, and sometimes neither – but can be random chance.
Interestingly, 10 of the Top 20 RoI Films are `about’ killing. (Paranormal Activity, Mad Max, The Blair Witch Project, El Mariachi, Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Open Water, SAW, The Devil Inside).
What is also remarkable about Othello is – how it is able to be read/interpreted in a multiplicity of ways, one hallmark of any `work of art’…
I also personally think that Shakespeare (or – whoever wrote Othello, and it could have been Christopher Marlowe for all I know) used this ambiguity to his advantage – and as Nordlund points out, that is some of what gives the play its power. (One of my own films, Rocket Man, also used ambiguity in a similar way.)
Rocket Man (10 mins) – Language, Violence, Not Safe For Work
Human nature is sometimes a fascinating mystery because – in specific cases, each person has a unique environment and heredity – and, due to agency and structure, and unique life experience, the circumstances that they find themselves in can vary, wildly. – When people are stressed, strung-out and tired they can often react in irrational ways.
Overall there are still certain generalized Human Universals, but also – given the amount of variables in life, who the hell can really say (or, predict) what anyone will do, in any given situation…? There are only probabilities, and those depend on what we actually know for certain at the time, about the circumstances.
This goes back to Pinker’s view: (from ELF: A Reader)
`Once the fictitious world is set up, the protagonist is given a goal and we watch as he or she pursues it in the face of obstacles.
It is no coincidence that this standard definition of plot is identical to the definition of intelligence that I suggested in a previous chapter.
Characters in a fictitious world do exactly what our intelligence allows us to do in the real world. We watch what happens to them and mentally take notes on the outcomes of the strategies and tactics they use in pursuing their goals (Carroll Evolution; Hobbs Literature).
What are those goals? A Darwinian would say that ultimately organisms have only two: to survive and reproduce.
And those are precisely the goals that drive the human organisms in fiction.
Most of the thirty-six plots in Georges Polti’s catalog are defined by love or sex or a threat to the safety of a protagonist or his kin (for example “Mistaken Jealousy”, “Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred” and “Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one”)…
Fiction is especially compelling when the obstacles to the protagonist’s goals are other people in pursuit of incompatible goals.
Life is like chess, and plots are like those books of famous chess games that serious players study so they will be prepared if they ever find themselves in similar straits.’
Those 3 categories of Polti’s above – “Mistaken Jealousy”, “Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred” and “Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one” all equally apply to Othello. (Even if, the last two are a forced misunderstanding.)
But – of course, the entire world still runs on: mistakes, errors, and misunderstandings…
– In my own view, given entropy, chance, randomness and chaos theory, it is a miracle that anything ever actually works… Let alone, feature films getting made, and then – being good, let alone great… (Or: super-viral, like all the top 20 RoI films)… In making a feature film, there are so many things that need to `go right’.
Also, for a summary of Polti’s `36 Dramatic Plots/Situations’ (derived from Gozzi), see also my book The Feature Screenwriters Workbook – which summarizes around 100 film story/screenwriting textbooks.
And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:
StoryAlity #132 – The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)
And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:
StoryAlity #71 – On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication
Comments, always welcome.
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
Castle, A. (2005). The Stanley Kubrick Archives. Köln; London: Taschen.
Marcus Nordlund, reprinted in Boyd, B., Carroll, J., & Gottschall, J. (2010). Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.
Steven Pinker, reprinted in Boyd, B., Carroll, J., & Gottschall, J. (2010). Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.
Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.