A paper written on Othello for an English class in spring 2012.
The long standby defense for rapists is that the woman was “asking for it:” provocative accentuations of her figure by her chosen clothing incited the natural impulses of the beholder. The similarly destructive and dominating power of murder, whether incited or committed directly, offers a potent counterexample in the case of Desdemona, the most terrible victim of William Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello feels justified in killing her even though to the very end of her life she caters to him unflinchingly, committing no slights or improprieties toward any character, and receiving bounteous praise all throughout the play as a paragon of virtue and purity. If anyone has “asked for” Othello’s deed, it is Iago, not Desdemona, who seduces it into action. While Desdemona cannot and should not be blamed for what happens to her, she bears some responsibility – for her own sake – to protect herself. Her ideally mannered self-presentation may radiate innocence, but the most brilliant radiation is both violently generated and fatally carcinogenic, if not incinerating outright. Desdemona must repress much of known human and social reality to maintain her image, and in so doing belies the innocence that she portrays, effectively making herself an easy target. Her superabundance of perceptible innocence works against itself and leads to a ready belief in her guilt.
Because the general opinion of Desdemona is so dependent on the image of deference and loyalty that she projects, that opinion is liable to swing vastly with the mere impugnment of her character. After a few crass accusations by Iago and Roderigo, Brabantio, her father, is already resigned to the truth of her betrayal. In an ironically revealing statement, Brabantio fatalistically avows belief in the allegations based on the circumstantial evidence of Desdemona having left the family home: “Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds / By what you see them act” (1.1.192-93). Though he has not seen the act described to him, Brabantio is instantly prepared to discard his trust in his daughter in exchange for the acts of Iago and Roderigo in casting aspersions upon her. When he sees that Desdemona is in fact with Othello, Brabantio rises to meet the terrible descriptions of domination relayed by Iago by theorizing that “some mixtures powerful o’er the blood” allowed that Desdemona’s “perfection so could err/Against all rules of nature” (1.3.118-119). “[W]ords are words,” he says, when being comforted after realizing that Desdemona has made the decision of her own will, “I never yet did hear / That the bruised heart was pierced [and thereby cured] through the ear;” ignoring the fact that the initial piercing and bruising of his heart had been wrought through the ear by Iago and Roderigo (1.3.249-51). The implantation of the mere idea of Desdemona’s “imperfection” into Brabantio’s mind sets the tone for the entire sequence of his distraught investigations.
Economic phenomena of an analogous nature reflect the destructive susceptibility of Desdemona to the speculations that both exalt her value and extinguish her final breaths. As Sheen S. Levine and Edward J. Zajac propose in a 2007 paper, price bubbles – the detachment of goods’ pricing from their actual value – “are caused by the institutionalization of social norms, when individuals observe and adopt the behavior of others” rather than directly evaluating the real commodity. When Othello hyperbolizes Desdemona’s value in bringing him happiness, he unwittingly speaks a literal truth in praising its excess: “I cannot speak enough of this content. It stops me here; it is too much joy” (2.1.214-15). In Jasson Minadakis’ stage production of Othello the audience observes Iago in the shadows, staring calmly and blank-faced as Othello and Desdemona share wide smiles, impassioned words and a kiss, demonstrating Iago’s cool head toward their mellifluous words of devotion, well aware that such an inflated bubble can and will easily burst. Iago, along with many attentive economists, expects the inevitable collapse of the overblown fantasy, knowledge which escapes Desdemona emotionally but not literally: “The heavens forbid / But that our loves and comforts should increase / Even as our days do grow!” (2.1.210-12).
With a few choice words from Iago, Othello’s valuation of Desdemona’s worth plummets until she is nothing to him. After he has killed her, he speaks of her as a discarded fad of investment in the marketplace, bemoaning like any get-rich-quick business idea the falsity of her promise of riches: “Had she been true, / If heaven would make me such another world / Of one entire and perfect chrysolite, / I’d not have sold her for it” (5.2.175-77). Even after he realizes that he has been wildly speculating on Iago’s guidance, his final words of remorse still describe his previous deed with the use of the materialistic metaphor that he “threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe” (5.2.407-08). Unlike the modern captains of financial industry, who received bonuses following their roles in the 2007 financial crisis, Othello stabs himself in an act of harakiri, which suggests that Iago may be more of a necessary evil than he appears. Where others emote and express heartfelt feelings in the stage production of Othello, Iago, when left alone to soliloquize his plans, stands up straight, unmoving, and speaks flatly and evenly about what he will do, as if he is the only character who understands the exaggeration of Desdemona’s worth: “The Moor is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest but seem to be so, / And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose / As asses are” (1.3.442-45) By thinking Desdemona honest only by her seeming such, Othello, as Iago recognizes, has undone any secure basis he might have for believing in her true nature. If Iago’s mere arousals of suspicion are sufficient to set off unconscionable furies and acts of violence, crashing the emotional economy of the play’s relationships, then it seems proper for him to eschew some final explanatory speech for a simple implicit accusation instead: “What you know, you know” (5.2.355).
Desdemona stands apart from the other roles onstage in Minadakis’ production such that her imagined ideal nature is amplified, which gives her a stately appearance that nevertheless hints at a vacuity and brittleness. Unlike the rest, she wears large, ornate dresses, smiles sweetly and readily for everyone, speaks with a weightless airy brogue, and she is the only female character who never wears arms, all of which accentuate both her separateness and refined femininity and thus make her the least worldly and accessible to the other characters and the audience. When talking with Emilia, a much more down-to-earth woman both on stage and in print, Desdemona reveals an unsteadiness in reasoning and an emptiness in imagination about a broader and more philosophical view of the world. When Emilia evokes the potential expansive benefits of sinning once to achieve a vast domain of privileges that even include the undoing of that sin, Desdemona cries, “Beshrew me if I would do such a wrong / for the whole world!” (4.3.88-89). Emilia easily and logically counters with an intelligent reply rather more relatable to the thinking of the common reader or theatergoer: “Why, the wrong is but a wrong i’ th’ world; / and, having the world for your labor, ‘tis a wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right” (4.3.90-93). Desdemona’s refusal to entertain this mode of thought is a telling predictor of her future outcome: her denial to situate herself among other people by sacrificing her noble image for the kind of social enmeshment enjoyed by the others, with its drink and fun and open attitudes of morality, ends up costing her that whole world when her crafted, vaunted image is tarnished by the mere hearsay of an alternative.
The contemporary political environment effectively functions by constructing ideal public images by which to furnish candidates who ultimately seem to stand for nothing except for what is needed among particular constituents at particular times. As with Desdemona and her reputation, careers live and die by flurries of media commentary that offer little actual insight into the real lives of public figures. In Robert Altman’s 1988 mockumentary television series, Tanner ‘88, presidential candidate Jack Tanner rarely has any motivation or thought of his own, though he is frequently being interviewed, recorded and broadcast by news reporters, campaign workers and financial supporters, wearing a vacant smile with a plain handsome appearance while spouting banal talking points but nevertheless presenting the very familiar and expected picture of an electable official. After a string of media circus debacles wreaked by overzealous members of his election team, Tanner confides to fellow Democratic primary contender Bruce Babbitt that he feels like a stranger to his own candidacy. The concentration on image manufacture in authentic politics generated a record $1.7 billion in campaign spending in the 2008 election (Salant); Barack Obama won an advertising award – voted upon by hundreds of marketing professionals – weeks before he was even elected (Creamer).
Due to his frequent embarrassing gaffes, Tanner does not have a chance to win the primaries; Obama, without any such notable mishaps, won the presidency. Iago’s mud-slinging, however, results in Desdemona’s death when those who esteemed her putative perfection the most see it repeatedly smeared by Iago’s reports. When he hears the first suggestion of Desdemona’s possible untoward behavior, Othello claims that he will “see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove; / And on the proof, there is no more but this: / Away at once with love or jealousy;” on the contrary, though, he is wracked with doubt from that moment on, because Desdemona’s image prevents him from truly seeing her as a person and determining the reality of Iago’s allegations (3.2.221-23). Cassio unwittingly links Desdemona with a manufactured identity when he says that she “in th’ essential vesture of creation / Does tire the ingener” – the artist, or contriver (2.1.70-71). Maintaining her stance as a virtuous and beautiful “paragon” evokes the expensive and effortful public relations machine supporting high-ranking political leaders, but just as sexual accusations against officials lead to public outcries and debates in media well before the facts are known – if they are ever really known – so too does Desdemona’s stature collapse by the soiling of her pristinely controlled conception in Othello’s mind. “But naught I did in hate, but all in honor,” he says in his defense, believing like any television viewer the authoritatively transmitted words and moving to think and act accordingly, since all he seems ever to have responded to with Desdemona is a prized and beautiful but flat and flickering picture of her (5.2.347).
It is easy and perfunctory to blame Iago for the tragedy that sees an undeserving woman murdered, and of course Othello is the too-simply duped actual perpetrator of the crime. However unfair it might seem, it is crucial to acknowledge Desdemona’s role, just as it is crucial to acknowledge the role that battered women can play in sustaining abusive relationships. Rather than firmly call him out on his lack of evidence and unjustified emotions, and find some external means of support, protection or escape, she remains steadfast in her trust and devotion to him, needlessly risking – and eventually costing – her own life. Not only that, Minadakis’ stage production emphasizes how she attempts to absolve Othello from all guilt in deliberate earshot of Emilia, claiming she has committed suicide and referring to her murderer as “kind” (5.2.152-53). Whatever apparent virtue can be adduced from her adoption of all responsibility is contradicted by the fact that this audible cry is leaving Othello potentially free to commit similar deeds with a new wife or companion, if not figuratively silence that person’s actual words as he does literally on stage with his hands in smothering Desdemona (Othello). Her almost ascetic self-restriction and repudiation of life’s common pleasures for learned manners in a glorified position of virtue ends up costing her the whole world that Emilia and others are able to appreciate, and her death symbolizes the ultimate untenability of leading a life innocent of the sins that animate humanity.
“Bagels With Bruce.” Tanner ‘88. Writ. Garry Trudeau. Dir. Robert Altman. Perf. Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon. Criterion, 2004. DVD.
Creamer, Matthew. “Obama Wins! … Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year.” AdvertisingAge. Crain Communications, 17 Oct. 2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
Levine, Sheen S. and Edward J. Zajac. “The Institutional Nature of Price Bubbles.” Social Science Research Network. Social Science Electronic Publishing, Inc., 28 Jan. 2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
Othello, the Moor of Venice. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Jasson Minadakis. Perf. Rinabeth Apostol, Aldo Billingslea, Dan Hiatt, Mairin Lee, Khris Lewin, Craig Marker, Nicholas Pelczar, Patrick Russell, Liz Sklar. Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley, CA. 30 Mar. 2012. Performance.
Salant, Jonathan D. “Spending Doubled as Obama Led Billion-Dollar Campaign (Update1).” Bloomberg. Bloomberg L.P., 27 Dec. 2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2009. Print.