Oscar Pistorius: A Shakespearean Hero?

Oscar-as-hamletThe latest image of the great athlete Oscar Pistorius is the one presented to South African Pretoria High Court of the hero drenched in blood after the killing of his girlfriend.

There is no concept in South African law of ‘sub judice,’ meaning that a case in progress cannot be discussed in public for fear of influencing jury members, because in South Africa the guilt or otherwise of an accused person is decided by a judge, who cannot be influenced.

And so, we can talk about what happened in that small apartment in Pretoria or, at least, what might have happened…

That image could be a poster for a performance of Macbeth, with the hero emerging from the assassination chamber drenched in blood. Looking at his hands Macbeth says: ‘What hands are here? They pluck out mine eyes!’

Macbeth is a much loved hero until he kills Duncan, an act that leads to his downfall. Oscar Pistorius was a hero, globally honoured. He has not denied killing Reeva Steenkamp and the idea of the hero gunning down a beautiful woman, screaming in terror behind a locked door in a tiny bathroom, has destroyed him. Like Macbeth he will never work again.

Shakespeare does not actually show us the killing of Duncan – it is done offstage: our imaginations lead us to the horror of it more effectively than our eyes would. The judge in the Pistorius affair is almost irrelevant: the fact of that young woman’s horrible death at the hands of Oscar and the mental image of her dying like that is enough to ensure his destruction. Like Shakespeare’s decision not to show Duncan’s assassination, the court in this case decided not to show images or even allow verbal descriptions of Reeva’s body to be made public. We all therefore have our own image of it, as we do of Duncan’s bloody corpse.

Perhaps, possibly more likely, though, Oscar Pistorius is Othello, who strangles his beautiful young wife out of jealousy when he is led to believe that she has been sexually unfaithful.

We have not yet heard evidence concerning Oscar’s state of mind when the shooting took place. The court is currently examining the forensic evidence, which is largely irrelevant: it is not a question of ‘whodunit,’ but ‘whyhedunit’ – he has freely admitted that he shot Reeva Steenkamp to death so there is no need to use forensics to place him at the scene. The prosecution needs to get to his state of mind when he did it. He says that he heard an intruder who ran through his apartment and locked himself in the bathroom. He, Oscar, jumped out of bed, not waiting to check whether the woman lying beside him in bed was there, he maintains, and fired through the bathroom door – itself a criminal offence, no matter who was in there.

During his bail hearing there were suggestions that he was jealous of her previous boyfriend and had threatened to break his legs. It was also maintained that she had met her ex for coffee in the morning before joining Pistorius in the evening. Neighbours heard arguing coming from the apartment, then a woman’s screams followed by four or five shots.

As we know, and as Shakespeare shows in great depth, in Othello, sexual jealousy can work on the imagination and infect the psyche profoundly. So the big question is not what the forensic evidence shows but, just as with Othello, what was working on his imagination and what triggered the event which made the poor young woman flee to the bathroom in terror and lock the door. Desdemona, unlike Reeva, submits herself meekly to being murdered out of love for her husband. Women don’t do that any more and Reeva Steenkamp certainly didn’t. It’s a case of ‘one who loved not wisely but too well,’ Othello’s excuse for killing Desdemona. But, like Oscar Pistorius, he did not love his woman too well but was obsessed with his male pride and his sense of ownership of her.

Macbeth’s life ends with his decapitation and Othello’s with suicide. However, do not expect a dramatic Shakespearean ending for Oscar. He may spend the rest of his life in prison or he may be out in a few years. But whatever happens, his life as a hero is over.

1 reply
  1. LexaGraeme
    LexaGraeme says:

    I must say the title drew me in to the article, ready to argue your definition of “hero”. This was well-written, and persuasive.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *