Fall 1988, Volume 5.2
"I Saw Othello's Visage in His Mind": Desdemona's Complicity
Dorothea Kehler (Ph.D., Ohio U) is a Professor of English at San Diego State University. She has written chiefly on Shakespeare's histories and comedies and is currently co-editing an anthology of feminist criticism of English Renaissance drama.
In the denouement of Stephen Crane's "The Blue Hotel," the Easterner remarks, "Every sin is the result of a collaboration." Despite her love for Othello, Desdemona can be interpreted as an unwitting collaborator in her own death, her responses to Othello giving him grounds for believing Iago. This thesis does not entail subscribing to Jan Kott's notion of Desdemona as "sexually obsessed with Othello" (118), terrifying him with her capacity for erotic love.1 On the contrary, Shakespeare gives us a "Young maid [. . .]" (1.3.112),2 so sheltered that according to her father her "motion / Blush'd at her self" (1.3.95-96), a maid whom Othello may have wed in confidence, thinking her years too few for her to have learned the lesson of prejudice. Reticence, however, is not incompatible with the urge to express one's newly formed identity through action, to imprint one's self upon the world. Desdemona is capable of a generous, romantic, but not necessarily passionate attraction to Othello. He is exotic and to be pitied. She falls in love idealistically, "as soul to soul affordeth" (1.3.114). Yet she is not represented as a "silly schoolgirl" with a "crush" on Othello, as Auden claims (12), any more than she is Kott's sexual obsessive. What controls Desdemona, despite her choice of Othello, is social conditioning. More than she realizes, she is her father's daughter. Having internalized both the black/white and saint/whore dualities of Venice, as a new wife she appears uneasy with Othello's blackness and with the physicality of marriage. Othello, inevitably misreading the latter for the former, experiences the overwhelming rejection that delivers him up to Iago.
Desdemona's speeches and silences do not create the impression of a physically enamored young woman. It is not difficult to understand Desdemona's lack of interest in the otiose "wealthy curled darlings" (1.2.68), of whom Roderigo is so sorry an example, in favor of the "extravagant and wheeling stranger" (1.1.136), who exudes the romance of adventure, obscuring his black visage behind a torrent of poetry. She loves him for the dangers he has passed, but the nature of her love is divided:
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honors and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. (1.3.252-54)
A Venetian in another play who loves a stranger calls her "Fair Jessica" (MV.2.5.39) and "pretty Jessica" (5.1.21); Lorenzo need not see Jessica's visage in her mind, for she wears no beak or red wig. Othello, however, wears a black face. To the honor and valor Desdemona sees in his mind, she offers a disembodied soul, a response that gains importance following upon an implied, unconscious rejection of the face behind which his mind dwells. In essence, she agrees with Brabantio that a "sooty" (1.2.70) face does not delight, but unlike her father, she can love by looking beyond Othello's face. This evasive, oblique statement of desire is the first ambivalent response that she gives Othello and that lies behind the recognition, too destructive for him to pursue, "Haply, for I am black . . ." (3.3.263).
If Desdemona appears to retreat from Othello's physical presence at one moment, she draws towards him at the next, pleading to accompany Othello lest she be bereft of "the rites for why I love him" (1.3.257). Accepting the consensus of editorial opinion that "rites" refers to marital intercourse, we wonder what motivates her to address the Senate so directly. When Desdemona makes her plea, Brabantio has already closed his doors to her; if she cannot join her husband, she will be homeless and, her marriage unconsummated, questionably wed. Whether she may accompany Othello is up to the Duke, who is likely to grant the woman what he might refuse the child—and Brabantio has just twice referred to Desdemona as a child (1.3.191 and 196). Desdemona can abandon the status of ungrateful child and enjoy her new identity as wife only by participating, as other women do, in the rites of marriage. How she will react emotionally to those rites she cannot know; like whoredom, they are outside her experience. But she knows that she must woo the Duke and Senate. While they see intermarriage as at best irregular,3 a woman's longing for a man subtly flatters all men. Desdemona's "downright violence" (1.3.249) is extenuated by its purpose, to submit herself to a husband, albeit a Moor—and the Duke concedes. The result of Desdemona's success is that within a few lines she reinforces the contradictory message she has given Othello, mingling implied aversion to his appearance—"I saw Othello's visage in his mind"—with a plea to live with him. Thus she replicates her society's ambivalence4 in a pattern of responses that keeps Othello off balance and abets Iago in cultivating catastrophe.
Desdemona's silences are critical. On the two occasions when Othello invites her to make love, the first shortly before Iago gets Cassio drunk, the second after Cassio's demotion, Desdemona conspicuously offers no reply:
Come, my dear love,
The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue;
The profit's yet to come 'tween me and you.
All's well now, sweeting;
Come away to bed . . . .
Come, Desdemona, 'tis the soldiers' life,
To have their balmy slumbers wak'd with strife.
In a culture where sexual purity is synonymous with honor in women, Desdemona's silence may reflect nothing more than expected modesty. But for Othello her silence must come to reflect distaste, for Iago assures him that Venetian women are uninhibited and promiscuous: "In Venice they do let God see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands . . . " (3.3.202-03). Knowing Desdemona to choose to see his visage in his mind, Othello could easily construe virginal silence as a shrinking from his blackness.5 Since Desdemona's silences are solely in response to Othello's urging consummation, we can understand how a male code of female propriety conjoins with a white code of black unattractiveness to demoralize Othello. Desdemona is shamed if she is frankly responsive, inadvertently rejecting if reticent.
When Desdemona does chatter, it is for the wrong reason at the wrong time; in order to reinstate Cassio, she has promised that Othello's "bed shall seem a school" (3.3.24), transforming herself from lover to pedagogue. Although in act 3, scene 3, she wins her point, in scene 4 she persists in devoting herself to Cassio's cause:
Des. This is a trick, to put me from my suit.
Pray you let Cassio be receiv'd again.
Oth. Fetch me the handkerchief, my mind misgives.
Des. Come, come;
You'll never meet a more sufficient man.
Oth. The handkerchief!
Des. I pray talk me of Cassio.
Oth. The handkerchief!
Des. A man that all his time
Hath founded his good fortunes on your love,
Shar'd dangers with you—
Oth. The handkerchief!
Des. I' faith, you are to blame.
Exit Othello. (3.4.87-98)6
Othello construes these importunings as Iago directs him. Criticism that hugs the surface of the text remarks nothing more than Desdemona's altruistic generosity of spirit. Yet her continued harping on Cassio in the face of Othello's increasing irritation and the length of time it takes her to realize that her "advocation is not now in tune" (3.4.123) suggests another motive. Unconsciously, Desdemona is putting Othello off, buying time before their next sexual encounter; her untuned advocation postpones a further celebration of "the rites for why I love him."
Desdemona cannot translate her ease with Cassio and Iago in non-sexual relationships into the sexual ease and indifference to race that might have disarmed Iago's attack on Othello's crippled self-image and sabotaged personality. She is victimized by a culture where sexuality in women, especially unmarried women, is suspect. Victimized by white male supremacy, she needs time to make the transition from virgin to sexually confident wife, time to reject the Venetian racist standards of physical beauty. Like Othello, Desdemona is unaware of the extent of her cultural conditioning, revealed most clearly in language. She replies to Iago's doggerel about women who are "fair and wise" by questioning, "How if she be black and witty?" (2.1.129, 131). Iago uses "fair" to mean beautiful; Othello's wife unconsciously and idiomatically uses "black" to mean unattractive. Although language dictates as well as reflects attitudes, time and an idealistic love might have defeated an oppressive ideology. But Othello's psychic scarring does not permit him to accommodate gradualism. He has no time. Silence and misconstrued speech undercut Desdemona's most loving gestures—her welcome of Othello to Cyprus and her promise of obedience (3.3.89). Othello receives in Cyprus as he did in Venice the mixed signals that strengthen his conviction of betrayal.
In the last scene the association of Desdemona with coldness emerges from the subtext and becomes explicit. When Othello speaks of Desdemona's beauty, of "that whiter skin of hers than snow / And smooth as monumental alabaster" (5.2.4-5), he suggests the death-like coldness of his still-living wife. After he kills her, he laments that she is "Cold, cold, my girl, / Even like thy chastity" (5.2.275-76). Although traditional, Othello's similes transcend convention through the intensity of his emotions and the climactic action they surround. An insight into Othello's feelings is afforded by a scene from Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind's exploration of sexual repression in nineteenth-century Germany. The Desdemona of Wedekind's character, Hans, is a picture of Venus that he uses as an erotic stimulus:
It is the cause. It is the cause . . . . You and your reluctance—inhuman—you tease but you don't give, you stir me up but your flesh can't move. Well, it's you or me—and I've made up my mind . . . . don't you see, you obstinate maiden, it's you corrupting me. Your refusal, your cold inhumanity, you're inhuman all of you . . . . You can see even now, she'd had the best upbringing. (41-42)
Disposing of the picture, Hans symbolically murders Desdemona to escape the frustration of unrequited passion. Wedekind's reinscription of act 5, scene 2, captures a major concern of Shakespeare's subtext, the effect of Desdemona's socially conditioned sexual reticence on Othello.
The play's subtext also surfaces during Desdemona's exchange with Emilia concerning Lodovico, an exchange which for many critics has called Desdemona's love for Othello into question:
Des. unpin me here.
This Lodovico is a proper man.
Emil. A very handsome man.
Des. He speaks well.
Emil. I know a lady in Venice would have walk'd
barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether
Considering this passage, S. N. Garner says of Desdemona, "In her heart she must feel she has made a mistake [by marrying Othello]" (249), and Auden takes Desdemona's brief praise of Lodovico as an insinuation of her eventual adultery with a white lover (13). Had Emilia brought up the subject of Lodovico, this exchange would have seemed a redaction of Iago's earlier attempt to make Cassio speak bawdily about Desdemona. But it is Desdemona who first mentions Lodovico. Does this conversation, as Auden suggests, form a part of a complex of adulterous thoughts embodied in the Willow Song and in Desdemona's subsequent questions to Emilia? Or does Desdemona simply regret having married Othello? Setting the Lodovico passage beside Desdemona's defense of Othello, which precedes it by only thirteen lines, we cannot think so:
Emil. I would you had never seen him!
Des. So would not I, my love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns—
Prithee unpin me,—have grace and favor in them.
This is not what women say when toying with the thought of a fantasy substitute-lover. Desdemona's words are as romantic as any in Shakespeare; she is as idealistically in love with Othello as she was in the first act. We must look elsewhere for an explanation of her comments on Lodovico.
Among the meaning of "proper" are those associated with propriety—that which is fitting, seemly, decorous, respectable. "The gentle Desdemona" (1.2.25) challenged propriety, defied the constraints of her class by marrying Othello. However subtle the social nuances, she has ungentled herself, and is far from home. While Jessica's marriage assimilates the bride to the majority culture, Desdemona's act of redefinition entails dispossession, liminality.7 When, without premeditation, Desdemona speaks of Lodovico as "a proper man," she averts to her kinsman's appearance and demeanor not merely in themselves but as expressions of the propriety that she has violated. She has lost the protection of a world whose codes are biased and narrow but, for those who observe them, safe.
Desdemona's naive questioning of Emilia about adultery contributes to her social awakening. Desdemona rejects Emilia's views but learns that insistence on a wife's fidelity despite neglect is part of an ideological code that women have challenged, just as she herself challenged the code forbidding intermarriage. Her tentative insight into the constructed nature of cultural beliefs can explain her attempt to exonerate Othello of responsibility for her death:
Emil. O, who hath done this deed?
Des. Nobody; I myself, Farewell!
Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!
At the last she has a moment of insight into the power of society (of everybody and "nobody") to destroy, directly and indirectly, those who rebel against the fundamental taboos on which power rests. She now realizes that Othello has not believed in her love for him, that her words and actions have proved inadequate, have not armored him against doubt and fury. Denying the slur of infidelity—"A guiltless death I die" (5.2.121)—she accepts responsibility for her own sins of omission and ignorance, and punishment for the deliberate sins of her race. The pawn of ideology, of oppressive social expectations, she nevertheless remains, like Othello, "great of heart" (5.2.362).
1 Kott's Desdemona is essentially Iago's Desdemona.
2 Citations from all plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare with editorial brackets omitted.
3 Had intermarriage been acceptable, Othello and Desdemona need not have eloped. Brabantio's insistence that Othello must have used witchcraft to win Desdemona and Roderigo's unhesitating entertainment of Iago's racial slurs also point to a breach of convention.
4 Othello is honored as a general but not as a son-in-law.
5 In Gli Hecatommithi the Ensign explains Disdemona's [sic] infidelity quite simply: "The woman has come to dislike your blackness." The narrator continues, "These words struck the Moor's heart to its core . . ." (Bullough 7:245).
6 Previously, Desdemona had harped on Cassio's suit at 3.3.42-83 and again at 3.4.48-50.
7 I use "liminality" in Victor Turner's sense: "Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial" (95).
LIST OF WORKS CITED
Auden, W. H. "The Alienated City: Reflections on 'Othello.'" Encounter 17.2 (1961): 3-14.
Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 8 vols. London: Routledge; Columbia UP, 1957-75.
Garner, S. N. "Shakespeare's Desdemona." Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 233-52.
Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boreslaw Taborski. 1964. New York: Norton, 1974.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. 1969. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton, 1974.
Wedekind, Frank. Spring Awakening. 1891. Trans. Tom Osborn. 1969. Rpt. London: John Calder; New York: Riverrun; Toronto: Canadian International Library, 1981.