Grave Suggestibility

by Elmer G. Wiens

Iago seduces Othello into murdering Desdemona, his wife, in the play Othello by William Shakespeare; Mary Tilford seduces Amelia, her grandmother, into destroying the lives of Karen and Martha, teachers at the private school that Mary attends, in The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman. The seductions, taking place in Act III Scene 3 (Shakespeare 93-118) and Act II Scene 1 (Hellman 31-39), are the peripeteia of the plays. While the confrontations between Othello and Desdemona in Act IV.2 (Shakespeare 130-139) and Karen, Martha, and Amelia in Act II.2 (Hellman 39-53) provide dramatic excitement, the seductions of Othello and Amelia spin the plays. After, the plays unwind to their denouement. According to Freud the love-groups, Othello-Iago and Amelia-Mary, make Othello and Amelia suggestible to sharing the emotions of Iago and Mary (176-177). Through appeals to love, Iago and Mary render Othello and Amelia into susceptible pawns, caught up in the emotions of Iago's counterfeit disgust with Desdemona's imaginary infidelities and Mary's panic over her teachers' alleged homosexual activities. In this paper I will compare the two seduction scenes, argue that the scenes are homoerotic, and explain why the seductions are successful by examining the circumstances under which they occur, even though both Othello and Amelia struggle against being deceived by their predator.

Sigmund Freud in A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud equates love with libido and argues that the "nucleus of what we mean by love naturally consists ... in sexual love with sexual union as its aim" (177). If sexual union does not actually occur, as with Mary and Amelia or Othello and Iago, the nature of the union reveals its sexuality - such as "longing for proximity and self-sacrifice" (177). Both seduction scenes provide ample evidence of expressions of love between prey and predator. Mary, having decamped from school, arrives home at grandma's house. Crying, "Grandma!" she "rushes to her and buries her head in Mrs. Tilford's dress." Amelia's response is protective and loving. Mary fondles her hand and "guilts" her with, "You didn't come to visit me all last week" (Hellman 33). Amelia and Mary have missed each other's company. Since Amelia's son, Mary's father, committed suicide, Amelia's feelings of guilt are acute. Love with a touch of sadism and masochism. Mary, remembering the game she and grandma used to play at bedtime, asks, "How much do you love me?" Grandmother says, "As much as all the words in all the books in all the world." Mary's intent not to return to school is absolute. When her fear of being murdered doesn't sway grandma, she accuses Amelia of not loving her. Finally Mary spins her tale of Martha and Karen's unnatural cravings (36), embellished by insights gained from reading Mademoiselle de Maupin (27).

Freud has cautioned us of the danger of neglecting the "libidinal factor in an army" (Freud 179). Othello, the general of Venice's military, has married Desdemona, a woman coveted by Othello's lieutenant, Cassio, and his ancient, Iago, not to mention the hapless, love struck Roderigo (Shakespeare 39-40 44 76). Othello, Iago, and Cassio share libidinal ties under Othello's command. The delectable Desdemona's infringement on these ties weakens them. There is a touch of panic in Othello and Iago's affirmation of love in the seduction scene. Othello says of Desdemona, "But I do love thee! But when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again" (96). Facing uncertainty about his lieutenant and wife, Othello attempts to strengthen the libidinal tie with his standard-bearer and seals his fate. Othello, unaware of Iago's true feelings, demands, "If thou doest love me, / Show me thy thought." Iago says, "My lord, you know I love you" (97). Iago, distancing himself from his negative comments about Desdemona's virtue, asks Othello for his pardon for "too much loving you." Othello comes back with, "I am bound to thee forever" (100). Iago echoes later, "I am your own forever" (110). Perhaps Shakespeare asks too much of us. Othello changes quickly from a competent leader of men to Iago's jealous dupe. Othello kills his libidinal tie to Desdemona with, "Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne" (109) and on his knees pledges his loyalty to Iago with, "I greet thy love ... with acceptance bounteous" (110). That's a bit much Will. However, if you accept that "hose-bag" Desdemona was always honest and virtuous, why not accept Othello's rapid transformation? On the other hand, accepting Desdemona's human sexuality explains her delight at Iago's dirty jokes (69-71) and renders Othello's transformation less of a phenomenon resembling an acute paranoid schizophrenic breakdown.

Why might Desdemona be unfaithful? Why might Karen and Martha be lovers? Shakespeare and Hellman supply reasons. Brabantio, surprised by Desdemona's marriage, says, "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; / She has deceived her father, and may thee" (61). Iago repeats in the seduction scene, "She did deceive her father, marrying you" (100). Iago believes Cassio and Desdemona love each other, for he says, "That Cassio loves her, I do believe't; / That she loves him, 'tis apt and of great credit" (75-76). Iago's suspicions are not just fabrications. Cassio, clearly attracted to Desdemona, says, "She's a most exquisite lady" and "She is indeed perfection" (78). Furthermore, Iago says that Othello is too old, rude, and unattractive (74) for the "cunning whore of Venice" as Othello later names her (133). Cassio, a Florentine "dandy and ladies man," is a much better match (40). Iago tells Othello that Venetian woman find the pleasures of adultery irresistible provided their husbands don't find out (100). The conditions for Desdemona's infidelity exist, as do the conditions for Karen and Martha's "unnatural love."

Karen and Martha were college friends, a couple, like so many female couples you see around any college campus: couples who eat, study, and socialize together. After college, they started a private school for girls: a residential school located on a farm. So they spent countless happy hours together, day and night, sacrificing many pleasures building up the school. Summers they would holiday together at the lake. Most heterosexual women in their late teens and twenties have a real hunger for men: maybe not just any man, but definitely for men. But in ten years Martha hasn't had a date. Mrs. Mortar, her aunt, says to her, "Burying yourself on a farm! Meeting no men!" (Hellman 19). Furthermore, Martha gets crabby whenever Karen's fiancé, Joe Cardin, is in the house. Martha's "jealous and possessive nature" is unnatural. She needs a man of her own (21). Peggy and Evelyn, who were eavesdropping at the door and overhear Mrs. Mortar's comments, emphasize the unnaturalness of Martha's feelings for Karen when, under duress, they must disclose the conversation to Mary (26-27). The three roommates are reading Mademoiselle de Maupin. Sensitized to the illicit pleasures of Lesbian love, they question how they "express" their own sexuality. Mary, like Iago, has grounds to believe that her suspicions about her teachers are valid. While both Iago and Mary use their suspicions as weapons for ulterior motives, believing the validity of their suspicions enables them to transmit their emotions to Othello and Amelia Tilford.

On its own, the evidence about the "lovers" is not very persuasive. Iago and Mary combine their avowals of love with their insinuations about the "lovers" to sway their quarry. But Othello and Amelia put up a fight. Othello says of Cassio, "I think that he is honest" (Shakespeare 97); of Desdemona, "I do not think but Desdemona's honest" (101). Unfortunately for Othello, he thinks too much. He doesn't want Desdemona to use him as a base while she "makes wanton" with his soldiers (103). Othello demands that Iago, "Prove my love a whore" (106). Iago later accommodates him by staging the scene with Cassio and Bianca that Othello misinterprets. When Othello demands a reason for Desdemona's disloyalty Iago deflects him easily with his story of Cassio's sex dream about Desdemona (108).

Mrs.Tilford doesn't believe that Karen and Martha will kill Mary. "You know they wouldn't hurt you for anything," she admonishes (Hellman 34). Amelia rebukes Mary for imagining things and for questioning her love. Mary shouldn't repeat talk about Martha's jealousy of Karen and Joe's marriage. Mary shouldn't use the word "unnatural" to describe Martha's feelings for Karen. But the "noises" and "funny" activities make Amelia tremble (38). She's getting turned on too. Amelia makes the mistake of asking a liar, "Have you told me the truth?" (38). "Like yes!"

Othello and Amelia are at the point of no return. Amelia calls the children's mothers to inform them of Karen and Martha's "unnatural" love after her seduction (39). Before she hears Karen and Martha's version of their relationship, she tells Joe Cardin, her grandson, not to marry Karen (44). When Karen arrives on her doorstep, she snubs her entry to the house (45). At the end of the seduction scene in Othello, Iago and Othello, on their knees and pledging their love, vow that Iago will kill Cassio and Othello will "do" Desdemona (Shakespeare 110). At this point neither Othello nor Amelia Tilford has any verified proof. Their suggestibility is so great that the speculations of Iago and Mary become unquestionable facts. They sacrifice themselves: Othello his life and Amelia her standing in the environs of Lancet.

However, Othello and Amelia have the opportunity to verify that their actions are justified. But now it doesn't take much to drive the last spike. Like paranoiacs, they have bought into the speculations offered them by Iago and Mary (Freud 119). Othello, watching the scene staged by Iago between Cassio and Bianca, is easily duped. Like a paranoiac, Othello believes Cassio laughs at him (Shakespeare 23-125). Mrs. Tilford, facing a libel suit from Karen and Martha, corroborates Mary's lie with the lie of the tergiversating Rosalie, who had at first denied Mary's story (Hellman 39).

The two scenes are homoerotic because of the expressions of love between the libidinal pairs of Othello-Iago and Amelia-Mary. Questions in our minds heighten the eroticism. What's going on between Mrs. Tilford and Agatha, her maid (32-33)? What about the asp that's about to bite Peggy playing Cleopatra at the start of Hellman's play (9-10)? Is this asp symbolic of Dr. Joe Cardin's penis? Who in the play cares? Why does Othello speak of asps' tongues when he denounces his love for Desdemona (Shakespeare 109)? Is it just Cassio's penis or is it the penises of all the soldiers in the army? If it is the latter, the general was right to remove the threat to his charges. An army needs its hierarchical structure "bound by libidinal ties on the one hand to the leader ... and on the other hand to the other members of the group." If an army becomes disintegrated panic can arise (Freud 179-180). The destruction of the fleet had only stayed the Turk's menace. Struck by panic, Mrs. Tilford and the other mothers shut down Karen and Martha's school to protect their children from the contagion: the fathomless, infinite sin of Lesbos.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. John Rickman. 1937. New York: Doubleday, 1957.

Hellman, Lillian. The Children's Hour. 1934. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1981.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Alvin Kernan. New York: Signet, 1963.





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