The Shadow Side of Love
Desdemona's Other Passions
In the previous essay, I sang a paean to Desdemona for her "love even unto the death," as the Scriptures might have it. Would that love were so simple and unmixed. Would that when she said, 'I love Othello' or, as she actually said, "My heart's subdu'd/ Even to the very quality of my lord (1.3.250-251)," that such a declaration settled the matter. Everyone, or almost everyone, wants a story of unequivocal, uncompromising, heartfelt, pure, simple, unadulterated love. Her utter devotion to Othello is captured in Desdemona's plaintive words to Iago:
"Here I kneel:/ If e'er my will did trespass 'gainst his love,/ Either in discourse of thought or actual deed,/ Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense/ Delighted them in any other form;/...Comfort forswear me (4.2.151-159)."
Wow! What seeming undying and exlusive love! But Shakespeare is too wise for that. He drops in some lines along the way that will call into question her almost religious vow of loyalty to Othello. The purpose of this mini-essay is to explore this shadow side of Desdemona's love.
Desdemona's Blindness Toward Othello
When Desdemona declared her love for Othello before the Venetian Signiory she said, "And to his honors and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate (1.3.253-254)." She was overcome by the valor and romance of his stories and loved him for the adventures he had passed (cf.1.3.167). This is both her glory and her fault, for in committing herself to his "honors and his valiant parts," she confesses that she was woo'd by his "star" quality. Even though she said she saw his visage in his mind (1.3.252), it was an incomplete visage, a visage scarred with things that were "passing strange" and "wondrous pitiful" but not a visage that might have been stalked by lusts and jealousies that could not have easily been discerned in his life narrative.
Desdemona's blindness toward Othello arises from the fact that she naively believes that the Othello of the stories is the Othello in reality, and the Othello she has taken into her heart is the Othello who actually resides in her heart. She cannot imagine, for example, that Othello had in him the least tendency towards jealousy or even a capacity for it. "I think that the sun where he was born/ Drew all such humors from him (3.4.30-31)." It took her until just before the slap even to question whether Othello was angry (4.1.234), despite ample evidence from his conduct in 3.4 that not only was he angry but that jealous rage had completely taken over his life. Her willingness to draw upon the bank account of love to pay the insistent debtor demands of anger and jealousy meant that she was unable to see the emergence and efflorescence of those characteristics in Othello.
Admiration (Love?) for the Guys in Uniform/Authority
But if this isn't enough to give us pause, her unguarded comments with respect to Cassio and unexpectedly sexual comments about Lodovico in 4.3 while she is about to sing the song of her own death (the Willow Song) make us wonder if the love that she must demonstrate is like a flood that cannot stay within the neatly carved banks of the river but must overflow and inundate the nearby countryside. Take, for example, the exchange with Emilia in 4.3.
Desdemona has just explained the nature of a song, the Willow Song, sung by her mother's made Barbary because she was forsaken in love. Barbary died singing the song. "That song to-night/ Will not go from my mind (4.3.30-31)," Desdemona says. In this time of unparalled somberness, she asks Emilia to unpin her dress, and then she says while her dress is being undone, "This Lodovico is a proper man (4.3.35)."
Lodovico had just appeared in 4.1 with the Venetian embassy to recall Othello. Her use of the word "proper" is, like many words she used to describe Cassio to Othello, ambiguous. Its "innocent" meaning is that Cassio is good-looking, and that he fits well the role that he is playing. On the other hand, it can suggest that he is a "real" man, and that his authority or garb or place in Venice actually might begin to evoke in Desdemona the same cavalcade of emotions that first greeted Othello's story in 1.3. To that end I will quote the entire brief dialogue, with Dedesmona speaking first:
"No, unpin me here./ This Lodovico is a proper man./ [Emilia] A very handsome man./ [Desdemona] He speaks well./ [Emilia] I know a lady in Venice would have walk'd/ barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip (4.3.34-39)."
Then, Desdemona begins singing the Willow Song. In Desdemona's defense one might say that when the conversation got steamy, she exited and returned with sobriety to the affairs at hand. However, she was the one who brought up Lodovico's appearance. Indeed, she knows that the "last verse" of the Willow Song, which she will presently sing, runs as follows:
"I call'd my love false love; but what said he then?/ Sing willow, willow, willow;/ If I court moe women, you'll couch with moe men (4.3.55-57)."
In other words, she knows that the song ends with lovers going to other lovers, to the life of couching with "moe men." Just as she couldn't get the song out of her mind as she thought about her impending death, she also might not have been able to get the last image of the song out of her mind--the image of couching with other men. Hence, her reference to Lodovico, the "proper" man, may have been triggered by the song's suggestion that the way one deals with disappointments in love is to search out new lovers.
I have argued in another mini-essay that Desdemona's representation of Cassio's claim for reinstatement before Othello was couched in such suggestive terms that not only a jealous Othello but also a rather neutral reader might conclude that she had some kind of romantic interest in Cassio. Jane Adamson even suggests that she tried to exert "emotional blackmail" over Othello in her appeal to him in 3.3. Why, indeed, would she have been so insistent to Cassio that she would "intermingle every thing he [Othello] does/ With Cassio's suit (3.3.25-26)"? Indeed, there is an element of naivete here, to think that since she knows her husband's mind and heart she can blithely intrude into his sphere of authority and engineer a reinstatement, but the mixed signals of love are also present. Maybe Desdemona herself is just open to the appeals of men in uniform, men who have made it in the Venetian world of her father. She would not be the first, or the last.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long