Make a Donation

Consider making a donation to support SHAKSPER.

Subscribe to Our Feeds

Current Postings RSS

Announcements RSS

Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: March ::
Re: Desdemona's Guilt; Memories
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0326.  Thursday, 7 March 1997.

[1]     From:   Jayel Wylie  <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Thursday, 06 Mar 1997 11:03:01 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re:  SHK 8.0283 Desdemona's Guilt

[2]     From:   Louis Marder <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Monday, 24 Feb 1997 11:16:25 PST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0315 Memories


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jayel Wylie  <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Thursday, 06 Mar 1997 11:03:01 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 8.0283 Desdemona's Guilt
Comment:        Re:  SHK 8.0283 Desdemona's Guilt

>I have a question that no one has seemed to be able to answer, or that I
>haven't found the right sources.  At the end of "Othello"  Desdemona
>accepts her death at Othello's hands and I want to know why.  I have
>been searching our feeble library for possibilities and they are few and
>far between.
>
>Does anyone know where I should look/ How about some feedback?
>
>My argument is that Desdemona seems to be an independent woman who would
>not take any sh@t from a man, regardless of how much she loves him.
>
>Thanks for any suggestions,  Michelle Walker

I had this same problem both as an actress trying to play the part and
as a grad student trying to write about the character.  While I'm not
sure I'd describe Desdemona as "independent" in the contemporary sense,
she does have to be, as Cassio describes her, "a maid/That paragons
description and wild fame" for the central conceit of the play to work.
If she isn't really "the divine Desdemona," her marriage to Othello
loses its power to shock the citizens of Venice and challenge the
audience.  But if she is a woman of substance rather than an empty
Barbie, why does she go out singing "Willow" rather than trying to save
herself?  Or rather, why does she look to her murderer's mercy for
salvation?

The only answer that ever seemed right to me is that she thinks that
Othello has actually made her a person, given her an identity, and,
therefore, has the right to take that identity, and her life, away.

When pressed to say why she has chosen Othello as husband over all her
other prospects, Desdemona says she has fallen in love with "the very
quality of my lord" (1.3.254).  David Bevington interprets this as
meaning she loves Othello's virtues, but I think it's more than that-I
think she recognizes in him both his nobility and his outsider status,
and she *identifies* with him.  This idea reinforces and is reinforced
by Othello's earlier statement that Desdemona told him that "she
wished/That heaven had made her such a man" (1.3.164-5).

So Desdemona's tragedy begins when she can no longer interpret her
husband's behavior, when she says "my lord is not my lord" and
therefore, she is not herself (3.4.126).  When Othello strikes her, her
first response is "I have not deserved this" (4.1.244)--there's your
evidence of that independent woman buried under the historical/societal
creation of dutiful wife.  But she soon determines that "'Tis meet I
should be used so, very meet" (4.2.122).  She has no context in which to
rebel against being a wife altogether, and she has irrevocably
determined to define herself not as Venetian society demands but solely
in terms of her husband's impressions of and reactions to her.  She is
literally losing herself.  [An interesting comparison between the
characters of Othello's Desdemona and Hamlet's Ophelia could be made in
these terms.]  If what she knows she is turns out to be different from
what Othello insists she is, then what she knows she is must be wrong.
She even goes so far as to ask Iago if she is a whore-if her husband
won't give her a straight answer, maybe his ancient will.

So when she has Emilia put her bridal sheets on her bed and leave her to
sing this willow song, she is practicing a kind of self-immolation, a
suttee-she makes herself a sacrifice to her god, Othello.  She has
accepted Othello's interpretation of her character even though her
logical mind knows it's wrong and is ready to accept her punishment.

But I think we as audience can still like her or at least empathize with
her because she continues to struggle against her own surrender-that
spark of self-realization doesn't die until she does.  When Othello
moves to actually kill her, she pleads for her life, even for one more
half hour of it, and when Emilia finds her dying, Desdemona says, "A
guiltless death I die."  But when Emilia asks her who has killed her,
Desdemona answers, "Nobody; I myself," and dies asking to be commended
to her lord.  If she can't be what Venice wants and she can't be what
Othello wants, she can only choose to be nothing at all.

Jessica Wylie

 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Louis Marder <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Monday, 24 Feb 1997 11:16:25 PST
Subject: 8.0315 Memories
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0315 Memories

Greeting to all would "do it" along with the French, Swedes, and the
others.  If you need any help finding good quotations to do it with, Let
me suggest that y'all get a copy of my recent book, Speak the Speech:
The Shakespeare Book of Quotations, HarperCollins, 1994 a 472 page
collection of quotations, arranged under a few hundred topics well
classified by play, speaker, and key word, and also a glossary.  There
are of course many quotation books, but this is mine and I recommend it.
It was done for a flat fee so I make nothing more by plugging it.  Order
it through me and I'll autograph it for you.  $15.00 plus a couple of
bucks for postage.. Louis Marder, 1217 Ashland Avenue, Evanston, IL
60202-1103.  E-mail 
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
   Happy browsing.
 

Other Messages In This Thread

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.