Othello, qualifications and stereotypes
I went last week to the National Theatre’s imaginative production of Othello. It is set in modern times, kicking off with Roderigo and Iago holding a cigarette conversation outside a pub. The second half takes place in Iraq or Afghanistan, with everyone in contemporary military garb, boots, camouflage gear and so on, and the scenes taking place in messrooms, sterile military offices and even washrooms and toilets. It works very well, for the most part.
That initial conversation takes us very swiftly into the plot. It is immediately clear that Iago’s resentment stems not just from being passed over for promotion to Othello’s lieutenant, but from the fact that the position has been given to Cassio. Cassio has acted as the go-between for Othello in his wooing of Desdemona, but on Iago’s account he is simply unqualified for the job. Seething with contempt Iago describes Othello’s choice:
“Forsooth, a great arithmetician, one Michael Cassio, a Florentine, a fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife; that never set a squadron in the field, nor the division of a battle knows more than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric, wherein the toged consuls can propose, as masterly as he: mere prattle, without practice, is all his soldiership.” Iago of course sets his own battlefield experience against the theoretical learning of Cassio.
This set me thinking about qualifications and how and when they emerged. In one sense, formal qualifications were aimed exactly to counter the kind of patronage which Othello has just shown. If people had to demonstrate their competence in some objectively endorsed way, this reduced the scope for appointments and promotions to be made on the basis of personal whim and preferment. It was a vital part of the way bureaucracies developed, as a more rational and in principle fairer way of organising and rewarding work. It increased transparency in the reward system, and is a crucial element of any meritocracy.
But of course that depends heavily on how well the qualification system operates: how appropriate the certified learning is, and how well it is tested. Iago clearly despises its application in this instance (though he also has other motives – it appears that Othello has also been tangling with Emilia, his wife) – just as senior nurses with massive experience but only limited formal qualifications viewed with disdain the arrival of clean-handed graduates in nursing studies . Ron Dore’s famous The Diploma Disease was the seminal work on the impact of inflated qualification requirements.
This had a gender aspect. One reason why the Paula Principle is emerging now is that women’s competences are now so publicly validated by our qualification systems. It’s not that women have suddenly become so much cleverer or harder working than 20 or 30 years ago. Not only have they learnt more; their competences are now much more obviously given formal recognition, on the same measurement scale as men. So the relative performances of the two sexes can no longer be ignored; they are visible together, in the same public frame.
In part this is driving the convergence between female and male careers. But it prompts an intriguing question: will the status and power of qualifications in general start to slip as a result of women overtaking men? This would be the equivalent, at a general level, of the impact of feminisation on the pay of some professions: as women take over, so the relative material rewards go down. In other words, will we see a change in how highly qualifications are regarded, as a result of women’s superior performance? A difficult question to analyse, but maybe someone should be looking at this (maybe they already are).
I can’t leave the Othello theme without giving space to another idea, also probably not new. It has nothing to do with the PP, except that it addresses the issue of stereotyping. Watching Iago bring down Othello, I wondered whether Shakespeare was here setting up yet another controversial stereotype, of a white man using his cunning to bring down a physically more powerful black man. The play throbs with sexual racial jealousy and fear – Desdemona’s father is openly appalled at the idea of his daughter getting together with the Moor. How does the white man get his own back on the black man’s greater potency? By cunning intelligence: Iago spins his web, and we see Othello thrashing around in it, eventually driven mad by his inability to clear his mind of the poison planted in it. I wondered just how Shakespeare meant the implications of this for racial judgments to be interpreted.
The week before I’d been to see a boisterous amateur production of The Taming of the Shrew. The Shrew presents some positions – on gender relations, this time – which also deal to some extent with stereotypical relationships, and which to put it mildly do not sit comfortably with modern attitudes. Kate’s final speech of submission to her husband can be interpreted, quite plausibly, as ironic. But if it isn’t, it doesn’t exactly set Shakespeare up as a liberal progressive. Add in Shylock and we have a trio of stereotypical relationships which give food for hours of debate over what kinds of historical adjustments, if any, need to be made to acquit the Bard of various unpleasant contemporary isms.
My thesis of small white man using cunning to outwit strong big black man doesn’t quite work in relation to the National’s production. Rory Kinnear as Iago is a rough sergeant-major, burly and brutal, physically as big as Othello. It’s a brilliant performance. But I have a sneaking feeling that casting Iago as a runtier specimen would add a further, tricky, dimension.