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What Shakespeare Can Tell Us About School Shootings

In the film O, a 1999 adaptation of Othello, toxic masculinity is at the root of violence

In 1998, five shootings took place on school campuses in the United States. So far in 2018, there have been more than sixty-five.

Over the last few decades, the frequency of violence in schools has increased exponentially. As a society, we have struggled to understand the nature of such violence and how to effectively bring it to a halt. A clue to deciphering this issue comes from an unexpected source.

Back in 1999, director Tim Blake Nelson and his crew were about to start the editing process for their adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, set in an American prep school, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire on their classmates at Columbine High School. Othello is a tragedy about a general in the Venetian army who is cruelly manipulated by a fellow officer to commit violence against his wife and his closest friend. As Nelson worked with his team to translate Shakespeare’s play to the modern day, it seemed to him, in light of the five school shootings that had occurred in 1998, that setting the tragedy in an American high school was not only “credible,” but “appropriate.”

Just as artists and politicians alike struggle to this day to understand the phenomenon of violence in schools, Nelson, too, was doing his best to confront and dissect the issue in his film, O. Unfortunately for audiences everywhere, Miramax, O’s original distributor, failed to see the value of opening a forum for discussion in the aftermath of Columbine and the film was shelved for nearly two years over concerns of its violent content before it was bought and released by Lionsgate in 2001.

O follows the deterioration of Othello counterpart Odin James (whose initials, O. J., are no coincidence), a black basketball star at an all-white prep school who is manipulated by teammate Hugo to believe his girlfriend, Desi, is cheating on him with his best friend, Michael. The film culminates in a violent rampage across campus where Odin and Hugo, accompanied by school outcast Roger, end up killing Desi, Michael, Hugo’s girlfriend, Emilia, and even Roger before Odin realizes what Hugo has done and kills himself.

On a surface level, it’s easy to draw one-dimensional conclusions about the root of violence in O. Hugo is jealous of the attention Odin receives on the basketball team and, based on his behavior, seems to struggle with mental health issues. Odin is subject to Hugo’s manipulation, much of which plays off of his position as the sole black student at his school. Roger, on the other hand, is relentlessly bullied by his classmates and jumps at Hugo’s offer to exact revenge.

All of the above assumptions, however, are overly simplistic and miss the one causal factor that unifies the actions of all three characters. Yes, Odin does face racial tensions at his school, but what drives him to violence is the supposed affair between his girlfriend and best friend, which threatens his sense of masculinity. Even as he strangles Desi to death at the end of the film, he tells her that he wishes he could let her live after what he thinks she’s done, but he just can’t. As the weight of the toxic masculinity that plagues Odin and his classmates comes into contact with racial issues (Hugo tells Odin that Desi calls him the n-word behind his back) and escalating drug use over the course of the film, the basketball star is driven to violence.

While Hugo really is jealous of Odin, the reason he is jealous is because of the attention given to the basketball star by the team’s coach, who is also Hugo’s father. When coupled with his apparent mental health problems, Hugo’s desire for his father’s attention takes a deadly turn as he assumes that a show of strength is the only way to get what he wants.

Hugo plays with Roger’s sense of masculine pride, too, promising him that if he does what he’s told, he can win Desi’s heart and steal her away from Odin. In this way, Hugo is successful in goading Roger into using his fists, and later a gun, to demonstrate his strength and masculinity. Therefore, it is not simply bullying that brings out Roger’s violence, but the fact that he is bullied in front of Desi.

So, it seems that Nelson offers a new understanding of the causes of violence in schools: one in which the influence of toxic masculinity coming into contact with other factors like race, mental health, and social dynamics is at the root of all violent acts.

If we turn to the violence that continues to pervade American schools today, the message of O maintains its relevance. After the Santa Fe High School shooting this past spring, it came to light that the shooter had been pursuing one of his victims for four months, even after she had rejected him. While other issues such as mental health and ostracism can play a role as well, toxic masculinity seems ever-present in the lives of school shooters. Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland High School shooter, had a history of violence against his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, which much of the media ignored in characterizing him as disturbed or simply “ill.”

In all likelihood, at least one school shooting will occur this week. The word urgent is an understatement. We must take action on this issue, equipped with a better, more nuanced, understanding of its cause. To do so, we may turn to Nelson and O, who were trying to warn all of America of the dangers of toxic masculinity even before the tragedy of Columbine.

Iman Lavery is a first-year student at Harvard University pursuing a degree in English.

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