Monday, December 21, 2015

On Being Aaron

Some time ago, I got together with some friends for Drinking and Shakespeare. (Although, since I don't drink, for me it was all about Shakespeare.) The time before, I was given the chance to pick the play that we would read, and knowing nothing more about it than the fact that a movie had been made and Anthony Hopkins was on the poster, I chose Titus Andronicus. (Clearly, this wasn't the smartest method by which to choose.) I also had first selection of characters. And, lo and behold, there was the character of "Aaron, a Moor, beloved by Tamora." Done and done. (Again, not the brightest move.)

Titus Andronicus, it turns out, is a tragedy. But when you've a bunch of people reading it over wine (many with funny voices) the unremitting horror cannot hold, and it eventually degenerates into blood-soaked farce.

But, being Aaron (whom I'll call "the Moor" after this, so I don't sound like I'm taking about myself in the third person) was really interesting and illuminating. Because, put simply, the Moor is Evil. And by this, I don't mean just someone who does bad things, or is bitter and spiteful towards others. The Moor is the sort of person that one simply never encounters in real life or in history - one who perfectly understands the difference between right and wrong, and does wrong not only intentionally, but specifically because it is wrong. The Moor's gleefully purposeless villainy is nearly unique in my literary experience and completely without precedent in my life experience. He murders, rapes and perjures, among other crimes, without a greater motivation or goal. He never admits to a wrong done to him that he seeks to revenge himself for - and in this sense is different from all of the other characters of the play, who are afflicted with varying levels of vengefulness, pride and self-pity triggered by real or imagined slights. He also understands conscience - and realizes that he completely lacks one. The Moor views this not only as a strength, but specifically as an advantage to be exploited with people who do have one, used to extract promises and vows with the expectation that they would be kept. The Moor, on the other hand, comes across as the sort of person who keeps his word if, and only if, it causes unwarranted injury to another. Interestingly, the Moor is both atheist and believer. While he professes to not believe in any gods, he does seem to allow for devils (if they are real, he wishes to be one) and Hell (he would like to continue tormenting others even there). He does, however, speak of his soul, professing it to be black as he is. (In this sense, the Moor's outer appearance, both black and ugly, mirrors his inner self in a particularly heavy-handed instance of being both bad, and drawn that way.) The closest thing to either a redeeming quality or feature that the Moor has is a fierce defensiveness for his son - but even that is the service of making the child into a weapon. Given that he is alive at the end of play (having dodged what seemed uncomfortably similar to a 20th century lynching), it's difficult to parse out if his efforts to save the child once he is in the power of those who will kill him are for the newborn's sake, or because he fully expects to cheat them of their revenge on him.

The fact that the Moor is black-skinned, impious and thoroughly wicked are never separated from one another. And this connection of what would seem to be unrelated traits is interesting in that it creates a link between Shakespeare's time and today. While racism in the United States can be thought of as mainly an economic caste system where one is born with one's mark, that economic hierarchy is often justified by attributing sometimes willful moral flaws to the lower castes that justify and/or explain their place. The idea of "Black cultural pathology" in the United States today being a low-hanging example. By the same token the idea that unbelief and willful evil can go hand in hand is still alive and well, with even members of the United States Congress on the record as having called out those who profess a non-belief in a higher power as being evil. This is not to say that these ideas are as common or as accepted today as they would have been in Shakespeare's time. Most Americans for instance, fully expect that any African-Americans they meet are going to be not only Christian, but quite conservative about it. But time and again we encounter the idea of "you're different, and that's bad" being driven by linking multiple traits that are considered "other," even when those traits are not directly linked - "Refugee from Syria" and "murderous Islamic radical" being a recent example.

The experience of portraying someone who is different in what one understands to be negative ways from everyone else gives an interesting perspective on being someone who is often different from the majority of the culture at large in ways that said majority culture perceives as negative. In part, because fictional people can be things that real people cannot, and in doing so, grant insight into the way that members of an in-group see members of out-groups. When I was younger, the ways in which many White people would respond to me and other Black people seemed strange and bizarre to the point of being disconnected from anything that resembled reality. Playing the over-the-top caricature of a villain that the Moor represented, however, allowed me to inhabit a person much closer to the one that those people were responding to, and thus to better understand the rationale behind their responses. It leads me to wonder what different groups of people would experience, if the play were re-cast with different ethnicities in the roles. I suspect that it would be educational.

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