Before Othello commits suicide, Lodovico tells him:
Your power and your command is taken off
…You shall close prisoner rest,
Till that the nature of your fault be known
To the Venetian state.
In response to this edict of Venetian jurisdiction—to erase identity, to imprison indefinitely, to declare fault—Othello, the “Moor of Venice,” declares that he has “done the state some service, and they know’t./ No more of that.” Othello’s stark dismissal, “no more of that,” conveys his troubled awareness that the conditions of state preservation necessitate the conflation of his duty with his punishment. His expected return to Venice allows the state full exertion of a dominant hegemony that was made possible by his (Othello’s) office. As Urvashi Chakravarty suggests in her reflections on civility as a category forced upon those seen as “other”, the subservience expected of racialized subjects is the problematic and uneven precondition for their participation in the social body. But by denying state authorities the power to punish, suicide brings under scrutiny a commonwealth/common-will that cannot accommodate a Black man’s social agency without compromising the hierarchies of power that justify white rule.
I thought about Othello’s “no more of that”—his pained refusal to speak about his service to a commonwealth that justifies white state power, which also marks a refusal to be of continuing service to that commonwealth—when I heard the news of a suicide that occurred at the Columbus Statehouse of Ohio. MarShawn McCarrel, a 23-year old Black Lives Matter activist, shot himself on the statehouse steps on February 8, 2016. His final Facebook post read, “My demons won today. I’m sorry.” McCarrell was a poet, a community organizer, and a recipient of an NAACP Image Award as an Ohio “Hometown Champion.” He created two grassroots organizations called “Pursuing Our Dreams,” a mentorship program, and “Feed the Streets,” a charity that provides food for the homeless. He devoted the vision, the labor, and the service essential to creating awareness about, and improving, the lives of many in need. To be 23 and to accomplish so much; to be 23 and recognized for the positive interventions you are making for your community; McCarrell’s life was as awe-inspiring as his death was devastating.
I continue to be haunted by McCarrell’s suicide. And I refuse to ignore the fact that one of his last choices was to enact this tragic, irreversible decision before an edifice of state power: on the steps of the Columbus Statehouse. What demons haunted McCarrel? Commentary after his death has focused on the importance of noticing and reporting signs of depression. But by using the language of an individualized pathology, and indeed employing the criminalized term of “committing” suicide, we ignore what William A. Smith, in a study of the “racial microagressions, societal problems, and environmental stress” experienced by Black men, termed “racial battle fatigue.” In an attempt to account for the “rising rates of young Black male suicide,” Charis E. Kubrin similarly finds that “to understand the relationship between structural disadvantage and suicide, it is necessary to consider the structural and cultural implications of these dire conditions, particularly among the younger generation of Blacks who have been faced with persistent disadvantage throughout their lives.” To what extent was McCarrel “wrought,” as Othello was, by the injustices and indignities of a racist society?
Understanding self-killing, not as a personal problem but rather as a public phenomenon that implicates state power, has not been adequately investigated in relation to the experience of racialized subjects. In John Sym’s 1637 Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing, suicide traverses the realms of religion, law, government, and monarchy. In this formulation, the “self killing hand” is a challenge to political authority:
the theame of self killing is the subject both of Divinity, and of humanity; of Religion and of Law: the full handling whereof may be serviceable to the Kings Majestie, for preservation of the lives of his people, against the blowes and mortall wounds of a self killing hand: and may be usefull for the publick good of the Church and the Commonwealth; both for the safety of the soules and bodies of their members; and also, in point of Honour; that the government of so gracious a King, and the glory of so famous a Nation may not be ignominiously stayned, by self-murdring practices.
To die by one’s own hand is not primarily about self-destruction, according to Sym, since its effects reverberate in the social realms governed by the King, the nation, and the commonwealth. In pointing out the political subterfuge underwriting suicide, Sym calls attention to the dimension of refusal—the no more of that—in this final expression of volition.
I have come to suspect that the critical preoccupation with the death of a white woman in Othello has over-determined the reading of race in the play at the expense of overlooking Othello’s actions in relation to state power. It is no coincidence that representations of the play’s final scene repeatedly feature Desdemona’s dead body as the central focus. The images below draw from centuries of depicting the tragedy in art and performance.
Visual representations like these highlight the lifeless yet luminous body of Desdemona while casting despair and darkness over Othello’s agonized figure. The tableaus perpetuate Othello’s lost prowess, his fallen status, his emotional fragility. Yet limiting Othello’s self-killing as the remorseful response to the death of his wife pathologizes and privatizes a public act that explicitly announces its outward facing (“speak of me as I am;” “set you down this”) and transnational, if fragmented, orientation (the beaten Venetian, the strangled Turk).
What are the implications of contextualizing Othello’s actions in the period’s conceptions of self-killing, which is, as Sym describes in his treatise, ultimately a refusal to be “serviceable to the King’s Majestie?” For one, it would mean reconsidering Desdemona’s death as not the sole, or even main, catalyst of Othello’s suicide. It would mean foregrounding the political implications of self-killing rather than conveying the pathos of a domestic tragedy. Refusing to wait “Till that the nature of [his] fault be known / To the Venetian state,” Othello assesses that the state’s dismissal and disavowal are inevitable. The fatigue endured by a racialized character “wrought / Perplex’d in the extreme,” and the denunciation of the relentless and insidious malice of white state power, both end with the self-killing hand.
On February 8, 2016, McCarrel’s “demons won.” For those facing the many demons unleashed by white supremacy, is self-killing not also a political protest—a refusal, a demonstration of and against the racism felt from the place in which the will-to-live resides?
Carol Mejia LaPerle is Professor and Honors Advisor for the English Department of Wright State University. She teaches and writes about renaissance rhetoric, philosophies of will, theories of affect, and constructions of race and gender in early modern culture. Her book-in-progress examines philosophies of will and formations of race; its current title is Dark Will: Race, Affect, and Volition in William Shakespeare.
The contributors to this special issue were participants in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Colloquium on “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies.” Organized and facilitated by Kimberly Anne Coles and Ayanna Thompson, the year-long colloquium met monthly to study a range of early modern cultural artifacts and texts. While exploring the Folger’s extensive collections, the participants also pursued innovative methods for bringing gender and race into dialogue with each other. Patricia Akhimie asked participants specifically to consider how questions of gender and race might be analyzed “in relation both to early modern texts and our own personal and contemporary experiences.” The contributions in this issue represent our efforts to do just that.