Othello and Desdemona

Sometimes It’s Hard to Be a Woman

"Othello and Desdemona", by Daniel Maclise

“Othello and Desdemona”, by Daniel Maclise

I’m quickly realizing that the detached, academic analysis-type stance is not going to work for me.
I’m not sure why I kept trying to go there with my writing, except for maybe habit.
After all, the last time I encountered Shakespeare was roughly a decade ago, when I took a class as part of my Master’s program.
Then, I really had no choice. I also had absolutely nothing else going on in my life–so it was relatively easy to spend countless hours doing research and writing formal papers with lists of citations.

Now, my time (and my attention span) is far more limited.
Perhaps a time will come when I’m able to really dig in and check one source after another, and conduct a more formal examination of the text(s)…
But I can’t start out that way. It’s too much for me to handle. I need to ease in and let things come naturally.

A brand-new play (and one of Shakespeare’s most acclaimed, at that), and a would-be scholar who is several years out of practice…
No wonder I’ve been feeling overwhelmed.
I need to learn to listen to myself. When my brain feels all gummed up, and expressing even a single thought requires extraordinary effort, it’s usually an indication that I’m taking the wrong approach.

“Write What You Know”

When I was in college, this was the advice my professors repeated time and time again. As a professional writer, I’ve come to realize there’s good reason for that.
The only time I’ve ever struggled in my writing has been when I tried too hard to force something–some format, some theme, some connection that didn’t exist in reality.
When I write honestly, from the heart, things seem to fall into place naturally. Even better, my audience seems to have an easier time figuring out what the hell I’m talking about.
So. Here we go. After a number of “false starts”, I’ve abandoned all pretenses and agendas, and I give you my honest take on Othello:

“Bondslaves and Pagans Shall Our Statesmen Be”

I realize that in many discussions of Othello, race is often the central theme. Of course it is. After all, Othello’s identity as a Moor is assigned great significance throughout the play, and Shakespeare constantly calls our attention to the contrast between dark and light (both literal and figurative).
Quite honestly, though, the issue of race in Othello didn’t really do much for me–and I don’t just mean I, personally, was unphased. I ‘4just didn’t encounter anything regarding race in the play that I found particularly noteworthy.

Sure, Shakespeare plays with traditional roles a bit, setting Othello up to be our protagonist. But is that really all that controversial?
Considering that, in the end, Othello suffers quite the fall from grace, and is proven to be nothing if not a false hero, it seems the point is moot.
I suppose that might be something noteworthy…the fact that Othello is just as subject to envy and fits of passion as any other  character is somewhat interesting…but it isn’t really something that came to my attention until right this minute.
What I found more interesting, at least on the subject of race relations, was just how little seems to have changed in the last 400-some years.
We like to think that we’re more progressive than our predecessors, but consider just how recent it’s been in American history that a Black man has been allowed to hold any position of power.  Just mull that over, for a minute. I’ll wait.

“She Wished That Heaven Had Made Her Such a Man”

I’m going to let you guys in on a little secret, here…are you ready? Here goes: I’m a lady. You know, a woman. A member of “the fairer sex” (whatever that means).
I’m also relatively small in stature–just under 5’4″. I have no idea what I weigh, but I have to be extra careful when I go outside on a windy day, so you can figure that out. I’m totally ok with my physical appearance, but it apparently has the unfortunate side effect of making dudes think that I’m a little girl who needs their “guidance”, even if I actually have more knowledge/experience/authority regarding the topic at hand, and even (or perhaps especially) when the topic is my own personal feelings and experiences–you know, the sort of thing that is intended to be completely subjective and open to interpretation?

For whatever reason, I’ve been encountering such unsolicited “guidance” with an abundance these last few days. Maybe that’s just where my consciousness was at, but I couldn’t help but to focus on the treatment of the women in Othello–in particular, the way that Desdemona is treated by the various men in her world. I was particularly surprised by the contrast between the way Desdemona is viewed by her father, Brabanzio, and her husband, Othello–at least at first. Upon hearing (from Roderigo and Iago) that Desdemona had married Othello without her father’s knowledge or consent, Brabanzio appears to be in denial. He insists that there must be some darker (pun unintended, but welcomed) element at play, and seems concerned that his daughter is being taken advantage of:

O heaven, how got she out? O, treason of the blood!
Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds
By what you see them act. Is there not charms
By which the property of youth and maidhood
May be abused? Have you not read, Roderigo,
Of some such thing?” (1.2.170)

It is immediately clear that Brabanzio views Desdemona as a child. It is also made apparent that she is objectified by both Roderigo and Iago, who have no concern at all for Desdemona’s own wishes or happiness, as they set the wheels in motion to try and sabotage her union with Othello. In fact, I found myself questioning the true roots of the animosity shown toward Othello by Roderigo and Iago (and, to a lesser extent, Brabanzio, as well). Is Othello despised because he is a Moor who rose to power? Is it because he holds the “prize” of Desdemona’s affections? Or is there something else going on, here? There is no simple answer to that question.  All of these factors seem to play into Iago’s ire, but we must also consider the fact that Othello is rumored to have had an affair with Iago’s wife, Emilia. Iago is enraged because he feels as though Othello has taken something from him–first a career opportunity, then Emilia. In this regard, Iago has been cuckolded not once, but twice (or so he perceives it).

Throughout Othello, women are viewed as mere possessions–vehicles by which the men have their various needs (social, spiritual, sexual) met. Throughout Act 1, Brabanzio laments his “loss” of Desdemona, asserting that something so terrible has happened that the Senators actually presume she must be dead. He describes his daughter in such a way that she appears meek and feeble, afraid of just about everything:

A maiden never bold,
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself — and she in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, everything.” (1.3.94)

How surprising, then, was it to hear Othello’s response to the accusations that he had somehow enchanted Desdemona against her consent:

“I do beseech you,
Send for the lady to the Sagittary,
And let her speak of me before her father.” (1.3.115)

In other words, “Ask Desdemona herself”. Even more surprising is that the Duke complies with this request.
What Othello says next, however, completely caught me off guard:

My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of kisses.
She swore in faith ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wonderous pitiful.
She wished she ahd not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her.” (1.3.157)

I mean, how forward is that? *Snaps fingers* Desdemona, you GO, girl!
We’re obviously not dealing with some shrinking violet, here, and something tells me Brabanzio is well-aware of that fact (despite his claims).
Just look at how Desdemona addresses her father:
My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty.
To you I am bound for life and education.
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you. You are the lord of duty,
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband,
And so much duty as my mother showed
To  you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.” (1.3.179)

We’re presented with an intelligent, sophisticated woman who knows exactly what she wants, and who isn’t afraid to assert herself. She appeals to the Duke to let her go with Othello, rather than forcing her to return to her father’s home.
This doesn’t sit particularly well with Brabantio, who remarks that he is glad he only has one child, as he’d end up treating them as a tyrant due to Desdemona’s actions.
He then issues a warning to Othello:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see.
She has deceived her father, and may thee.” (1.3.291)

Othello’s response carries remarkable weight, considering the way things turn out:

My life upon her faith.” (1.3.293)

The impression that I get is that Desdemona serves both as Othello’s rock and his inspiration. He may be the veteran soldier, but she is the constant he relies upon.
Cassio’s remarks to Montano support this. When asked about Desdemona, Cassio replies:
She that I spake of, our great captain’s captain.” (2.1.75)

It would appear that Desdemona is the one who holds the power in this relationship, despite all of her husband’s accolade. Indeed, when Othello greets Desdemona after weathering a storm at sea, he refers to her as “my fair warrior.”

Throughout the play, the image of Desdemona as a pillar of strength, grace, and comfort is reinforced time and time again. It is her love that gives Othello the fortitude to serve as a military leader. Without Desdemona and her affection, Othello would–and does–fall apart.

“‘Tis not to make me jealous
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well.
Where virtue is, these are more virtuous,
Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw
The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt,
For she had eyes and chose me.” (3.3.187)

“His Unkindness May Defeat My Life But Never Taint My Love”

As I read through the play, I was struck by how suddenly Othello’s demeanor seems to change regarding Desdemona and her loyalty to him. At first, Othello is convinced of her devotion and the purity of her character. As Iago continually plants the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind, however, he becomes increasingly tense and irrational. The powerful figure we encountered in the first half of the play becomes a horribly broken man. Once certain of his union with Desdemona, Othello concedes that to murder his wife in the bed she’d allegedly defiled (with Cassio) would be an act of poetic justice.

Throughout Othello’s verbal and physical attacks, Desdemona never waivers in her love for him. She knows her husband, and she loves him unconditionally. She holds fast to their commitment in the face of all adversity, even defending Othello as she dies. When Emilia rushes in to find her dying, Desdemona responds:

A guiltless death I die.” (5.2.132)

And when Emilia inquires who is responsible, Desdemona states:

Nobody, I myself. Farewell.
Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell.” (5.2.134)

Loyal and true even to her last breath. Some may say this makes Desdemona a martyr–a tragic casualty of circumstances beyond her control. But by her own words, Desdemona refuses to be a victim. Who is responsible for her death? “I myself”. She is owning her situation. She embraces it. In her darkest moment, she remains that pillar of strength, grace, and yes–even comfort.

Commend me to my kind lord.” With her dying breath, Desdemona offers her love yet again. She remembers the gentle, kind, compassionate man that Othello was. She refuses to recognize the monster, driven by envy, that stands before her. It is no wonder Othello falls into such lamentation:

Now, how dost thou look now? O ill-starred wench,
Pale as thy smock! When we shall meet at count
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven.
And fiends will snatch at it.
Cold, cold, my girl,
Even like thy chastity. O cursed, cursed slave!
Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight.
Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur,
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
O Desdemon! Dead Desdemon! Dead! O! O!” (5.2.279)

Oh, Desdemona. If anyone needs me, I’ll be over in the corner sobbing uncontrollably while this plays:


Othello: The Initial Reaction(s)

Othello and DesdemonaI was born two months prematurely, and I’m pretty sure that was the only time I’ve ever done anything ahead of schedule.
That certainly seems to be the case here, anyway, as I’m scrambling and playing catch-up.

While my friend over at A Year of Shakespeare has spent the last couple of weeks examining Othello in depth,
I tore through the entire play last night. I’d intended on taking my time and working through the play this past weekend, but true to form, I left it until the very last minute. It was around 2am when I read the final lines, and it took me quite awhile after that before the thoughts flying around my head calmed enough for me to sleep.

I want to revisit my notes from last night and will whip up a more comprehensive response to the play later on, but here are some of my initial reactions:
Oh, the game of politics. Individuals getting ahead as a result of their connections and personal preference, as opposed to any sort of professional experience or merit? It’s amazing how little has changed in the last few hundred years (and arguably since the dawn of human society)…

I understand that Roderigo holds a grudge against Othello out of jealousy, because he loves Desdemona. But what is Iago’s deal? It seems rare that we see someone who is purely villainous, with no real cause or understanding as to where the awfulness is coming from. Between the one-dimensional quality of Iago’s character and the swiftness with which Othello’s character turns, I was inclined to think that Othello might be one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays. In fact, the opposite is true–Othello was written c.1603, just over a decade before Shakespeare’s death. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. The play was inspired by Giraldi Cinthio’s “Un Capitano Moro“, published in his Hecatommithi in 1565. Perhaps the source offers some insight? Or it could just be that what I’m perceiving as abruptness and one-sidedness are merely dramatic devices. What are your thoughts?

Brabanzio. Oh, Brabanzio. Freaking Father of the Year, right here. I’ll have a lot more to say about this later.

Desdemona. I love her, and at the same time I’m confounded by her. I’ll explain this more in depth later on, as well.

Emilia: the epitome of loyalty, and it becomes her ultimate downfall. Centuries before the X-Files gave us the tagline “Trust No One”, was Shakespeare implying the same? I’m quite curious as to what was going on in The Bard’s world around this time.

Lesson learned: Finish the play before commenting on it. I was feeling very excited and a bit overwhelmed while reading through Othello last night, so I decided to take a brief break. I’d just finished reading the scene wherein Othello and Desdemona are reunited in Cyprus. After Othello mentions how it was worth weathering the storm to see Desdemona, and comments that if he were to die in that moment, he’d be happy, Desdemona replies:

The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase
Even as our days do grow.” (2.1.190)

I thought this was terribly romantic, so I posted it to Facebook. Then, I made the comment I’d almost immediately come to regret:
“Some of the best pillow talk I’ve ever encountered in this play.”

PILLOW TALK. Ugggggggh. If only I had known. Ugggggggh. I am SO embarrassed.
The worst part is that I’m certain some believed the remark to be an intentional pun.
I’m cringing just thinking about it, but I have to admit, it is a bit humorous in retrospect.

I should have known better. After all, this is a tragedy we’re discussing, and they’re sort of known for their dramatic twists.
So, yeah. From now on, I’ll be a bit more patient. Perhaps slightly more reserved in my commentary…at least until I know how things turn out.

More to come…