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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: October ::
Re: Desdemona
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.2146  Tuesday, 29 October 2002

[1]     From:   Frank Whigham <
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        Date:   Monday, 28 Oct 2002 09:09:20 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.2137 Re: Desdemona

[2]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Monday, 28 Oct 2002 15:28:42 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.2137 Re: Desdemona


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Frank Whigham <
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Date:           Monday, 28 Oct 2002 09:09:20 -0600
Subject: 13.2137 Re: Desdemona
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2137 Re: Desdemona

>ou have
>to explain that children were chattel and property to be used
>and not
>enjoyed in and of themselves as children.

This idea, though common, and famously inscribed in Stone's Family, Sex,
and Marriage 1500-1800, has been subjected to a good deal of critical
demolition. Primary sources work too. A review of period diaries (see
Macfarlane's edition of the diary of Ralph Josselin, for instance) turns
up plenty of evidence of much the same kind of profound parental
involvement in children's fate that marks our own experience. And (since
this is an Othello thread) Brabantio himself says of Desdemona, "Gone
she is; / And what's to come of my despised time / Is naught but
bitterness" (1.2.164-66). She is no simple chattel (not that property is
ever exactly simple).

This is not to say that marital matches were not often also (that is,
partly) selected with a view to their impact on notions of suitability
that included familial capital. However (1) as with proud references to
"my son the college professor," an element of "use" is hardly absent
today; (2) such selection criteria were often viewed as specifically
productive of children's happiness, not the reverse. Disposing of your
children well in marriage was, like paying your children's college
tuition, a significant moral matter to many early modern English
parents. And, like college choice, marital matches were often "used" for
bragging rights, for self-assurance as to the child's benefit and the
parent's parental adequacy, and (with dowries and tuition) grounds for
bumper-sticker self-advertising complaint ("My daughter and my money to
Texas A&M").

We are not the heroes of history.

Frank Whigham

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Monday, 28 Oct 2002 15:28:42 -0800
Subject: 13.2137 Re: Desdemona
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2137 Re: Desdemona

Terence Hawkes offers some of the usual "theoretical" chatter about
Othello, which has the usual effect of making the play sound like a
tract. Whatever Shakespeare was concerned with, he approached it by
representing characters with personalities and motives. There could
hardly be a bigger mistake than to tell students that the characters
don't matter.

Some of the characters' motives are represented, some suggested, and
some not. Some questions make sense, some don't. The characters do not
bear investigating in the same way living people do. Yet they resemble
people, more so than, say, Brecht's characters, and part of the purpose
of Shakespearean playing is to depict, and explore, human motives. In
this play Desdemona loves Othello with a love that is not, for most
people in their world, "probal to thinking." Othello can't believe that
she could be as "heavenly true" to him as she is, and is ensnared by
cleverly induced doubt.  For what, exactly, should we blame Desdemona?
If we say, for example, that she broke the rules of her society, we side
with Branbantio. If we say she was too naive, we may side with Iago.
What makes her love so hard to believe in? These questions arise, first
of all, through our responses to the characters. Saying we should
curtail those responses misrepresents Shakespeare. That way lies
critical madness.

Best wishes,
David Bishop
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