When ‘Othello’ Comes to Receive Treatment
By Tamir Ashman
For many years I’ve occupying in group therapy for men who behave violently in their family. During the days that have passed after watching the show Othello in Gesher theatre, we suddenly became, all my patients in the men’s groups and so did I, to a kind of Othello – men who conduct their mental world in a closed electrical circuit (I will elaborate next about this). The script writer (Dori Frans) created a true script, powerful and fluent, that touches the delicate capillaries which connect between men and women. The show occupies in the deep place in which “the internal theater” of the man loses control, becomes obsessive and claustrophobic, loaded with anxieties, rage and jealousy which come from the difficulty of carrying and containing the neediness, the desire and the vulnerability of love. A familiar difficulty to anyone who experienced an intimate marital relationship, men and women as one.
Othello is a general, an army man, a warrior, a sort of archetype or a mold of the patriarchal male production line (played by the actor Miki Leon). The male as a super hero with the triangle body and the cubical abs. The commander, veteran of the elite units, knotted, rude, who enjoys every morning from the bitterness of the black coffee. In contrast we meet Desdemona – a classic archetype of feminine (played by Bar Sadeh). White, pale, innocent as a child who holds a doll which connects her like the umbilical cord to her childhood. Her look is veiled, and she seems to be refusing to acknowledge the cruelty which exists in the society in which she lives. Her longing is to play with her love, to stare at Othello while she observes him from the porch of the naïve fantasies of her existence. Othello falls in love with the white Desdemona, Desdemona falls in love with the black warrior.
In brief, it seemed that this was a story about a forbidden love between a black man and a white girl, like nothing new under the light of sun in Romeo and Juliet’s Verona. But Shakespeare leads us, like in the story of Adam and Eve, to encounter the snake, the urge, the conflict, in the image of the villain Iago (played by Sasha Damidov). Iago, who is also a military officer who is subordinated to Othello, brings Casio with him, the other man who is in love with Desdemona. Casio is a type of ‘white’ man, vulnerable, who feels like the underdog in the mute and tuff world of the warriors.
In Iago’s world – the villain’s character, falling in love as a gate to vulnerability, and vulnerability as femininity – needs to despise, to strangle it. The vulnerability is the inheritance of women, and not of those with the abdominal muscles. As part of a vendetta, he plants the seeds of doubt and betrayal in Othello’s brain while making up a love story between Desdemona and Casio. Iago represents the voices of anxiety and lack of trust, planted deep in the patriarchal thinking, and their goal is to “protect the man” from his vulnerability and devoting himself to the absorption of love. He is careful to strengthen the flame of Othello’s scared ego in Desdemona’s cheating stories, thus throws the couple from a paradise of spouses and naïve and devoted love towards an existence in which where envy, competition, possession and anxiety rules.
We were accustomed to think that war needs men, and that men needs war – this a popular social conception. But in this situation, the man doesn’t hold the ability to face a relationship routine without “ecstasy”. The “un familiar” peace seeks for the sensed emotion, the scorching, sweaty, filled with passion and testosterone feeling that the war is so good at producing. And in war like war, there aren’t really winners, only gravestones and graves.
Like many men who I meet in the therapy groups, at this place of the suspicious attack, Othello’s plot thickens. The thrill and the passion of battle clear out a space for emptiness and boredom. The obsessive thoughts provided to him by his “friend” Iago, fill the moments of silence and provide Othello with false feelings of “excitement and passion of war”. These moments illustrate something I encounter a lot during my work – the struggle of us men to contain the boredom and the routine in the group’s ‘here and now’, and in the marital – family life outside of the group. As Shalom Hancock once wrote – “My eyes are open wide without seeing the sky, without seeing the ocean’s blue, the tree’s green, without hearing beautiful tunes as in the past, without seeing the things as they are.” Through the gender education provided to boys, we learn to empty the meaning and value from delicate emotional experiences which occur in each day of our lives and seek emotional experiences that don’t exist in the present of our lives.
In the black or white field in the world of men, which is composed of a language of victory and defeat, ruling and conquering, Othello finds his way, he is the master there. But will Othello be able to deal with his relationship the day after the victory? Or the day after achieving the woman? Will Othello and Desdemona be able to separate themselves from falling in love and live in the daily routine of love?
Shakespeare tells something almost eternal about us men – when there is no actual war outside, we go to the internal wars of our untreated soul, that suffers from PTSD. There is the battle and the sacrifice and what separates between them. We’re in a play, watching a hopeless battle between the anxiety and the love. Like Iago whispers to Othello –
Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger,
But, oh, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts— suspects, yet soundly loves!
Us men were socially trained to face the outer wars, the concrete ones, but to the inner wars of our bubbly urging soul, we come unequipped. We are taught to attack and alienate the pain from our childhood, to despise the weakness, to be ashamed of our emotional needs and our dependence in other people. We’ve internalized degrading attitude towards compassion and peace, and thus we remain shield less across our vulnerability and our stormy emotional world. Defeated under our language less inner world, in which the compressed anxiety ruins the body from within, and slaps in bitterness tantrums from outside. This is how Othello tells about the rage:
Now, by heaven,
My blood begins my safer guides to rule,
And passion, having my best judgment collide,
Assays to lead the way.
The seeds of doubt lose control in Othello's mind, Othello the hero of wars is incapable of banish the flies of his thoughts, and the seeds of betrayal which Iago has planted within him, grow as a toxic plant which takes over Othello's world. In fact, at the mental level, Othello is going through a sort of an anxiety attack. In the 'black and white' world of men there is no room for anxiety, it doesn't get a legitimate validity nor social recognition. Men are not to confess they're afraid and suffer from anxiety. We are forbidden, under the validity of an ancient hidden social warrant, to ask for help, to say we went lost and can't remember the way back. Thus Othello is in-jailed inside his inner world without any possibility to share it with his surrounding environment. As a closed electrical circuit, which hits a boiler without a thermostat. And as compressed anxieties go, they attack and scortch Othello's body. In therapeutic terms or in personal relationships terms, this is a dramatic moment. In Othello's world, Desdemona became the enemy in an instant, to an actual threat over his existence. He tied his heart to hers, and she is the one risking him at heartbreak. These moments reminded me many patients who tell in the group session about a "woman who builds her house can foolishly tear it down"- how in one moment the woman becomes destructive, to an enemy who her goal is to use the man. Like under a spell she becomes unworthy of the man's vulnerability. How can we trust the enemy? This is an eternal paradox which is very difficult to untie. The plot of the play would have ended in an entirely different way if Othello has learned to trust the enemy, his spouse who is suspected in betrayal.
It is hard to convert the power of the settings (designed by Michael Karmenko) in these moments during the play: huge fabrics are spread out and change its forms along the entire journey. For moment they are delightfully sensual, and later, seem like a woman’s giant genitalia strong and greedy, and at highlight moments it seems that the set threatens to swallow the audience in an unavoidable obsessive panic attack.
In the biblical story of Cain and Abel, after god has rejected Cain’s grain offering, he approaches his rejected son with a question: “will you be better?” – will you be able to contain and hold your flaming world from the damage I caused, will you be able to save yourself from an act of revenge in your brother? Shakespeare, like god, holds a challenge for helpless Othello, as well as asks him – will you be ably to control yourself? Your bubbling and flowing world? Will love not to be murdered?
Othello, like Cain, which during his entire life story was taught how to hunt, attack and kill, takes off his uniforms, and life forces him to face his internal post traumatic world. A mute internal world, which lacks a language and emotional validation. Othello is found in the midst of a night anxiety artillery; his thoughts are raging:
would’ve been happy if the whole army had had sex with her, the lowest-ranking grunts and all, as long as I didn’t know anything about it. Oh, goodbye to my peace of mind! Goodbye to my happiness! Goodbye to the soldiers and to the wars that make men great! Goodbye! Goodbye to the horses and the trumpets and the drums, the flute and the splendid banners, and all those proud displays and pageantry of war! And you deadly cannons that roar like thunderbolts thrown by the gods, goodbye! Othello’s career is over.
Othello's inner strength is routed under the weight of his toxic thoughts, and at the moment of his physical collapse his thoughts will scream:
Lie with her? lie on her? We say “lie on her” when they belie her! Lie with her—that’s fulsome. Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief! To confess and be hanged for his labor. First to be hanged, and then to confess—I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is’t possible? Confess! —Handkerchief! —Oh, devil! —
Othello’s tantrum starts from within, Othello rejects all help, and thus the process of his collapse continues to burst with bottomless bitterness. Othello has learned in his life, like many other men in power positions, that the only way to regulate the raging obsession from within is by casting it at his wife, who becomes a faceless object, that can be used to achieve an instinctive release.
These tragic moments are part of the routine in the therapeutic process in men. A few weeks ago, I remarked to an old patient of mine (three years) in the group, about being late for the third week in a row. The man took off his glasses and snapped at me with screams – “you’re always looking for me, you’re against me, you always do this to me, what are you patronizing a me!!!” I looked him, and I said, I would consent to this assault at me, only in one condition – that he would put his glasses back on, he was no longer able to attack me. I asked him “when you look into my eyes, what do you see?” and he replied – “that you’re on my side”, and then he began crying and sharing hid pain and helplessness he is in for the past few weeks, after his wife told him that she is separating from him. After many years that I’ve been conducting therapy for men, I can testify that the critical and healing part in the therapeutic work with men, happens in the transition from object relations and communication which is based on transfer processes, objectifying and casting – to equal relationships, which are based on mutual acknowledgement of vulnerable subjects, relationships which are based on a dialogue and emphatic listening.
Like Othello, a lot of men suffer from anxieties at night, but the man who will wake up his spouse and reveal his fears to is rear, as the one who will initiate the approach to receive professional care of anxiety attacks and controlling obsessions. Mostly the Israeli man doesn’t go routinely to the family’s doctor for follow up, and in many cases, men will ask for help in a marital crisis, once the sides’ lawyers are in the picture or when the law forces them. So, what was left for Othello to do in these moments of obsessive jealousy? What could Desdemona do? And what is the responsibility of the society, which like in chronic of a predicted death witnesses daily to the emotional sacrifice of her best sons on the altar of masculine control and conquer. Or in the simple words of Yehuda Amichai:
“God pities the kindergarten children,
Less on the children in schools.
And on the grown ups god has no mercy
He’ll leave them alone”
Desdemona was sacrificed, Othello was sacrificed, all the women in the play were sacrificed as well as the men. The show ends in Iago’s words – the leader of anxiety and obsessive suspicious, which is familiar in all our lives. A Iago years old words, like were sent to us to listen to it right now:
Filth, you are lying! I want to die I'm tired, a decent man must slum
The wicked is wearing majesty and glory
Tired of rank wearing scarecrows
Of virgins who became prostitutes
Of the unwashable stains
The limping set the etiquette
The tongue less occupy in the arts
Fools rule and pretenders predict
And the simplicity qualifies as simplification
The veracious are given false words to drink
I am so tired, just one thing
If I leave how will you manage alone?
So, what does Othello has left in these moments of obsessive envy, which his entire gender-social education taught him to overcome, despise and conceal his feelings? In which tools do we equip our sons and men to regulate their emotional world in a non-destructive way? It is not random to me that Othello is male, like it is not a coincidence that the gender ratio between men and women in prisons around Israel is a ratio of about 20,000 male prisoners versus 170 female prisoners, or in each reading in morning newspapers we are accustomed to find articles about men who raped, murdered, bribed or abused. This is a painful ratio, shocking, which demands a deep social change when we address the emotional world and the vulnerability of boys – men in the Israeli society.
אשמן, ת. (2015).כשאותלו מגיע לטיפול. [גרסה אלקטרונית]. נדלה ב 24/10/2016, מאתר פסיכולוגיה עברית:http://www.hebpsy.net/articles.asp?id=3338