The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1326 Monday, 30 June 2003
From: Keith Hopkins <
Date: Sunday, 29 Jun 2003 16:36:17 +0100
Subject: Bloom on Othello
I think Mr. Gyde has raised a very interesting point.
Whether Desdemona was or was not a virgin is perhaps not the immediately
arresting point of the play, but it does, I think, point up what is the
overwhelming dramatic motif of this tragedy, which is a really quite
sickening obsession with sexual desire and the failure in the play for
it to find any sort of naturalistic fulfillment or release. Many
scholars have commented on the incredible way in which Shakespeare can
create an atmosphere in a play, which is indicative of some dramatic
purpose or individual characterization that he wishes to develop in the
play. Macbeth an atmosphere of treachery, Hamlet, court intrigue, King
Lear, dynastic disappointment and the sadness of age etc. In Othello, a
play I must admit that I had not re-read for quite a few years until
recently, I was quite literally overwhelmed by the power of the
characterization of Iago, such that I think that Iago, for all his
negativity, is the second greatest Shakespeare creation after Hamlet,
and I was also deeply impressed by this cloying atmosphere of sexual
desire that amounts to a madness and even a perversion of human appetite
and that centres on the puzzling figure of Desdemona. Am I the only
person that thinks there is something very strange about this woman? We
have the whole process of her pleading Cassios cause and the extremely
ambiguous overtones to this.
Why is she so keen to help Cassio and does she not see that even if this
is for the purest of motives, it can be easily open to being
misconstrued in the sexually charged atmosphere of Venetian life and
particularly given the rather egregious stupidity of her husband, a man
who seems to have experience of warfare and nothing else and is like
some sort of time bomb ready to be primed by somebody else.
I personally think that she is really what I can only describe as a
'tart'. Or on the other hand she is so culpably naive that she ought to
be taken away to a place of safety by the men in white coats.
Atmosphere is everything in Shakespeare and he often conveys far more
through that and what people do not say rather that what they do.
Venice was notorious throughout Europe in the 16th century for its
really quite shocking sexual depravity, despite all the efforts of the
church to stamp it out. Thousands of prostitutes, catamites and pimps
thronged the streets and public squares and couplings frequently took
place in broad day light. And every perversion was catered for. The
sexual dimension was but an index of the terminal decline of the power
of the Venetian state itself, and I think this is one of the covert
themes of the play. The principle men in it are all obsessed one way or
another with sex and the embodiment of that sexual urge is Desdemona.
This heightens the frantic almost perverted overbearing sexual
atmosphere of the play. Brabanzio, Desdemona's father is obsessed by
the idea of this strange exotic man Othello marrying his daughter and
the progeny that would result. Othello is obsessed by Desdemona she
seems to represent all kinds of strange urges and desires of otherness
so far as he is concerned. Don't forget that marital fidelity was no big
thing in corrupt Venetian society. If Desdemona was a whore and a large
number of the 'ladies' in high Venetian were, this was a fairly
accepted, if not acceptable thing, so why does it provoke a fury in
He fights to defend the Venetian republic, but just what is he fighting
for?, - a whore ridden society without scruple. Is it that Othello
comes from the slave dominated society, and there is this ambiguity
about whether he has converted, and does he just want to treat Desdemona
as a slave?.
Roderigo, the super vaccuo of the play, is obsessed with Desdemona , and
being a man without a brain cell, a bit like Othello, he takes Venetian
society at its face value and ends up being killed by it.
Cassio is probably obsessed with Desdemona also, and has no thoughts for
the courtesan that follows him around and loves him Bianca. Cassio is
nearly killed also, but just escapes.
Iago, is the kind of devilish incarnation of the Venetian state, and
brings about a succession of deaths. We have Iago at the very pyramid
of the men, or indeed an incarnation of masculine sexuality and he again
is obsessed with Desdemona. So she indirectly brings about all the
deaths that occur in the play, and the whole focus seems to be this
heavy concentration on male desire for the female prostitute and the
consequences that flow from the decay of public morals in the wide sense
of the term. So to answer the question, I do not think Desdemona was a
chaste person, and probably had a sexual history, and is very much of a
product of the society she was born in to. For instance, it should be
noted that she had very little control or influence on what happens in
her own life, though I suppose feminists would say that is of a piece
with a male dominated society.
I should add I think, that even more than the other tragedies, I wonder
whether Othello is suitable material for the under 16, given its
particularly what Bloom would call its rancid nature, but I will leave
that to other and wiser counsels than my own.
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