‘As lovers, Othello and Desdemona either worship or despise one another. There is no middle ground.’
In the light of this view, discuss how Shakespeare presents Othello and Desdemona’s attitudes towards one another in this extract and elsewhere in the play.
OTHELLO Why, what art thou?
Your wife, my lord; your true and loyal wife.
Come, swear it; damn thyself;
Lest being like one of heaven, the devils themselves
Should fear to seize thee. Therefore be double-damned:
Swear thou art honest.
DESDEMONA Heaven doth truly know it.
Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell.
To whom, my lord? With whom? How am I false?
Ah, Desdemon! Away, away, away!
Alas, the heavy day! Why do you weep?
Am I the motive of these tears my lord?
If haply you my father do suspect
An instrument of this your calling back,
Lay not your blame on me. If you have lost
I have lost him too.
OTHELLO Had it pleased heaven
To try me with affliction, had they rained
All kind of sores and shames on my bare head,
Steeped me in poverty to the very lips,
Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes,
I should have found in some place of my soul
A drop of patience. But alas, to make me
A fixèd figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow unmoving finger at!
Yet could I bear that too, well, very well:
But there where I have garnered up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life,
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up – to be discarded thence
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in! Turn thy complexion there,
Patience, thou young and rose-lipped cherubin,
Ay, there look grim as hell!
In “Othello” Shakespeare presents Othello and Desdemona’s attitudes towards one another as going from one extreme to another. Othello’s character is seen as loving and caring towards her and then switches to him despising her. Although Shakespeare presents Othello acting in this way, Desdemona consistently loves Othello throughout. The way in which Othello acts towards his wife may be due to his manipulated mind from other characters in the play. It can be argued that Desdemona’s unfailing worship of Othello is what forces her into a passive position and leads to her brutal murder. In this extract taken from later in the play, Othello’s extreme cruelty towards Desdemona as a result of his deep jealousy is presented and also Desdemona’s unrequited love is explored. Their differentiating attitude towards each other may be the cause of their doomed relationship due to Othello letting Iago “poison his ear” about his relationship throughout.
In the extract, Shakespeare presents Desdemona as an extremely loyal wife and shows her worshipping Othello even when he is violently speaking to her. Desdemona states that she is his ‘true and loyal wife’ even though Othello has been manipulated to not believe this. She emphasises her loyalty through the motif of heaven; when commanded by Othello to “swear thou art honest”, Desdemona tells him that “heaven doth truly know it”. By Desdemona doing this, the Jacobean audience at the time would have viewed her saying this as important as it shows her to be telling the truth due to their strong religious beliefs in both heaven and hell. Shakespeare uses many questions to convey Desdemona’s worry and her desire to try and find out from Othello what he has been told; she asks Othello ‘why do you weep? Am I the motive of these tears?” She then goes on to constantly ask Othello more questions: “to whom, my lord? with whom? How am I false?” The constant question asking shows Desdemona’s worry and sense of panic conveying a frantic tone because she worships her husband and wants him to know the truth and how loyal she is. Feminist Lisa Jardine criticised Desdemona for becoming a “stereotype of female passivity” due to her almost bowing down to her husband who is aggressively speaking to her rather than arguing with him, whilst other people may argue that it shows Desdemona passionately caring for Othello and only wanting to know what has hurt him because it hurts her to see her lover hurt.
Desdemona’s love for Othello is also shown at the very beginning of the play where she stands up to her father by deciding to elope with “black Othello”. Desdemona states to Brabantio that “I love the Moor” and “I am hitherto your daughter”. The word “hitherto” suggests that her identity as Othello’s wife overrides her identity as Brabantio’s daughter, this is extremely unconventional as in the 17th century the role of daughters was to obey their fathers and act as their property. Not only did Desdemona elope, but she also married a black man; interracial marriages were frowned upon in the 17th century. Desdemona however showed that her worshipping and true love was too important to follow the conventions at the time. Critics such as Thomas Rhymer at the time thought that by Desdemona breaking the conventions at the time that she was seen as a “silly woman” and goes on to explain that this may be the reason for their deteriorating marriage. However, Rhymer fails to view that Desdemona is doing this because of her besotted love towards Othello. Also, at the end of the play, although Othello is trying to kill his wife, Desdemona decides to take the blame for his actions. Emilia asks “who hath done this deed?” and Desdemona replies with “Nobody. I myself”; despite this being interpreted as a passive response, it again conveys Desdemona protecting her husband from any form of punishment thus suggesting that she intensely loved Othello even as she takes her final breath.
Although Desdemona worships Othello, his attitudes towards her constantly change between worshipping her to completely despising her. In this extract, Othello directly opposes to Desdemona’s motif of heaven with his motif of hell. Here, he abuses the imagery of heaven: “heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell”. The mention of hell particularly affects the Jacobean society as many Jacobeans feared hell and damnation, so this line delivered by an enraged Othello may perhaps come across as sinister. Othello then goes on to question whether “heaven’ is ‘pleased to try me with affliction, had they rained all kinds of sores and shamed on my bare head”. This explores Othello’s self-love as he suggests that he is the only one suffering; he does not recognise Desdemona’s state and forces his misconstrued conclusions on to her. This juxtaposes with Othello’s powerful love for Desdemona at the start of the play where he tells the Senates and the Duke to “let her have her voice” and allow her to travel with him to Cyprus. Considering the extremely patriarchal, misogynistic society “Othello” was set in, this line is important as 17th century women had to repress their voice; by allowing Desdemona to use her voice. Othello suggests that his love for Desdemona transcends all social barriers similarly to how Desdemona unfollowed the conventions by choosing “black Othello over her father”.
Othello’s attitude towards Desdemona change with the manipulation of Iago, as he completely denies her a voice in this extract and undermines her by labelling her as a “whore’” and ordering her “away, away, away”, this is an extreme contrast to his attitude at the beginning of the play. Othello’s change in attitude towards his wife may remind the audience of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Like Othello, Macbeth undergoes a momentous change in attitude towards his wife; at the start of the play Macbeth was often seen scheming with his wife and keeping her informed but by the end of the play Macbeth is seen patronisingly telling his wife to “be innocent of knowledge, dearest chuck”, leaving Lady Macbeth dejected and alone, much like Desdemona at the end of ‘Othello’. Furthermore, this extract presents Othello’s struggle to restore the emotions of love and jealousy that he feels. Othello’s “fountain from which my current runs” is ‘to be discarded thence” or to be used as a “cistern” for “foul toads”. Othello’s “current” is a metaphor for his love, which is now polluted as he despises Desdemona for her supposed infidelity. Othello’s destructive hatred for Desdemona is further reinforced through the imagery of smell, hell, weed and reptile/insects: “O thou black weed who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet”. He suggests that Desdemona is deceiving, she is actually a weed which truly is neither lovely nor sweet smelling and that the weed is pretending to be a beautiful flower. It seems as though Othello is trying to justify himself despising Desdemona. We can also see Othello’s destruction of himself causing his relationship to be doomed, gone is the “valiant” man who worshipped his wife and in his place is a man who passionately detests his lover.
Overall, it is evident that Othello’s attitudes towards Desdemona have changed throughout the play, whereas Desdemona’s love and loyalty is strong until the tragic end. True love is based on understanding and trust, this is not the case for Desdemona and Othello as Othello allows for his mind to be abused by Iago and does not trust Desdemona is faithful, leading him to despise her. It is also interesting that once a man has been manipulated by another man, the female is automatically wrong and does not deserve to explain or have a voice for herself showing misogyny being played out.