LORRAINE BALINT--- Introduction to Literature--- December 1, 2003
1.)Berger brings up an interesting point when he questions Desdemona's action of losing her handkerchief in Act III, Scene 1. If Desdemona is conscious of the importance of the handkerchief, then why does she allow it to be lost during this scene? Present your own opinion on this question while addressing the points made by Berger.
Interpretation of the motivation of a character in a play is more complex than when doing so in regard to characters in stories or novels. In the case of reading a story, one is dealing with the viewpoint of the author as imagined in the reader's mind, without a "middle man". In the case of the play, if one actually views a performance or performances, interpretations can vary every time, because it depends on the attitudes, opinions, and executions of the producers, directors, and actors. However, Berger's essay, which examines the motivations behind Desdemona's loss of the handkerchief which was her husband Othello's courting gift to her (and her subsequent evasions about the loss), fails to mention a crucial point: he makes no mention of the fact that Othello physically, as much as vocally, caused her to lose it in the first place. Further, deliberate ignorance of the simple stage direction that supports this premise seems to have occurred from time to time in the performance of this play, most recently in the film version. The whole essay appears to be full of blame on Desdemona (who, of course, was not perfect, but NOT sinister, either. I thought IAGO was the villain of the piece?)
It is certainly true that, even in real life, marital partners, in the heat of a disagreement, sometimes do stupid things to prove a point, but which backfire on them eventually. These actions can range from breaking a a familiar / treasured object, to getting blind drunk and smashing up the family vehicle, to committing utterly meaningless adultery with a total stranger. Berger argues that Desdemona, who was young and inexperienced in dealing, not only with her husband's feelings, but her own, was not above such petty behavior. Shakespeare, who had been married in his teens to an older woman, years before composing this play, probably had some first-hand experience in that area, and strove to put some of it to use here. Indeed, Desdemona DID some foolish things, but did NOT lose the handkechief on purpose, and, when confronted with its absence, had some understandable reasons for diverting her husband's attention from the circumstance.
But first, to address the issue of how the scene is presented--- To quote Berger, "...It would be perverse to stage the episode in a manner that concealed the handkerchief from Othello (for example, by having Desdemona wad it up in her hand.) She, at any rate, knows what she is dropping." Yet, apparently, it CAN be staged that way, and that's how it was played in the film. It looked quite natural, too, not "perverse", but still, did not show Othello committing the physical act of rejection that made his wife drop the handkerchief. It is depicted as an accident--- though Desdemona has been shown wearing the cloth earlier in the film, as though she DOES treasure it, the way she leaves it behind is easy to understand. Her new husband feels sick, yet they both have to do their duties as hosts at the dinner, plus, she has Cassio's troubles on her mind. Desdemona thus hurriedly grabs at the first loose strip of fabric she carries on her person, and drops it on her own bed, where it couldn't possibly be "really" lost--- it's "okay" for Desdemona to forget about it for a while, because it should have been safe there. Besides, Emilia's nearby; a more trustworthy maid would have found and returned the napkin to either of the spouses.
Further, Berger states: "To represent Othello as recognizing it makes him perceive what she offers to bind his head with. If she registers that recognition---" There is no indication in the dialogue that this is the case, and this is not from subtlety, since Shakespeare often telegraphs rather obvious premises and conclusions. Plus, one must consider the state that Othello is presented as being in at this moment. He claims to be suffering from a bad headache, perhaps part of his neurolgical problem that will soon be revealed, and occasioned by a terrible, already obsessive, guilty suspicion. He speaks "faintly". After noticing his wife's approach, he might even be too upset to actually look at her directly. It's quite possible that he didn't really notice the embroidered strawberries--- maybe they weren't dyed red at all, but matched or were close to the background cloth color, and he was too miserable to pay attention. To tie it around his head, Desdemona would likely have folded or twisted it to make a bandage, thus further concealing the work.
The continuation of Berger's suggestion "---she must hear him countermand his general conjuration in ordering her to drop the handkerchief before he escorts her offstage"--- is, again, not indicated by the dialogue. Up until then, Othello has "conjured" nothing. The "napkin", which he deridingly calls "too little", might as well, up until that time, been ANY anonymous handkerchief in Desdemona's possession. Of course, the audience knows it MUST have significance, because such a show is made of it, but not the nearly-incredible legend he will later reveal.
When Othello says "Let it alone", the interpretation given in the text is "never mind". The stage direction at that point is that he actually pushes his wife's hand, which is holding the handkerchief that is supposed to be practically an icon to him, and it falls, with neither spouse appearing to notice. Desdemona then says "I am very sorry that you are not well", which indicates that Othello's abruptness in refusing her help has hurt her, and, likely, made her a bit angry--- which, because she seems to be a nice girl who still adores her new mate, she represses for his sake, along with the memory of having the handkerchief swept from her hands. Othello's gesture could be a foreshadowing of his later physical abuse of Desdemona: tonight, he swats a symbol of his love for her out of her hands, in the presence of her maid; a couple of days later, he swats HER in the presence of her noble relatives.
I don't believe that Shakespeare intended to set up this situation so as to invite such intense future analysis, just suspense. The way this part of the plotline works itself out, gives the impression that, while a legitimate dramatic device, it was written in haste. The inconsistencies are rather more than would be suggested by gradually layering the seriousness of this seemingly inconsequential action for maximum effect--- the actual sequence of events, as Berger notes, is out of order. As he observes, neither Othello nor Desdemona mentions that the "napkin" the girl proffers has any special significance--- at the moment. Othello then tells his wife not to bother with what he believes to be her feeble, surely guilt-tinged attempts to console him, and makes her drop the cloth, which she has handled with what he believes are her guilty hands.
Yet, when Emilia happens by and picks it up, she recognizes the handkerchief as a special courting gift that Othello had given to Desdemona, which the young bride even "kisses and talks to" (which, in a further inconsistency, she was never shown doing before then.) Then why DID the girl use it for such a mundane purpose as a head-tourquinet? Did she really have some belief in its curative powers, or WAS it just the first thing she absent-mindedly pulled from her pocket or bosom? In a later scene, she indicates that she does carry other, less-valued wipes, in the event that they might actually be needed for practical use. However, even if she knew what handkerchief she was using, this still doesn't necessarily indicate "negligence" or spite on Desdemona's part; on the contrary, if she's that fond of the item, this shows some maturity: She's willing to use it in an emergency, and doesn't fret about its (hopefully) temporary absence.
In that same scene, when Othello confronts Desdemona about the loss of the handkerchief, he suddenly reveals something to her which he never had before, that it was a magical talisman given to his mother to bind the affections of Othello's father, and inherited by himself, for similar purposes. Now, why, during all his other tale-telling during his courtship of Desdemona, DIDN'T Othello mention THIS fascinating family legend, along with all those stories about primitive tribes of men whose heads were buried between their shoulders? If he had, his bride MIGHT have kept the heirloom in a safer place, or at least, not used it for impromptu headache care.
It IS possible that Othello made up this story to frighten her, though up until then, he has exhibited only genuine sincerity and honesty. But his already-extant insecurities and increasing despair, "manured" by Iago and, possibly, exacerbated by his secret ailment, might have prompted him to exaggerate the importance of the handkerchief. No wonder the clueless Desdemona becomes even more reluctant to tell her husband that she can't find it, and starts prattling about Cassio's troubles again. Yet, judging by Emilia's remarks about her own husband's desire to steal the cloth, it seems that Iago must long have learned more about its history, and Othello's feelings about it, than the girl his commanding officer married.
Again, there's another inconsistency, or lack of continuity, as Berger mentions--- Iago claims to have seen Cassio wipe his beard with the sacred scarf earlier the same day. Yet, if this is the same cloth Desdemona had just tried to use and was made to drop, and Othello actually recognized it as his mother's at the time, how did it come back into his wife's possession just in time for her to offer the "tainted" cloth to help heal her husband's headache? Othello doesn't even question the timing of the incident Iago claims to have observed. (Nor, for that matter, does he wonder at the amazing coincidence that Iago happened to share a bed with Cassio, whom, he claimed, had a VERY vivid dream about making love to Desdemona. This would have been a fairly simple detail for Othello to check.) The conclusion appears to be that Shakespeare needed a catalyst to really set Othello's jealousy juices flowing, had to quickly invent an increasingly complex backstory to support its significance after the fact, and didn't proof-read the results, at least not closely.
Further, it is demonstrated that Desdemona doesn't like to blame her husband for
ANYTHING, not for making her drop the handkerchief (and failing to return it, preferably
with lavish apologies for being so rude in the face of her guileless concern), nor,
in the end, even for killing her. In fact, by the time Othello starts asking his
bride about the missing accessory, both seem to have forgotten HIS role in its loss.
Desdemona might have her faults, but deliberately losing the handkerchief on account
of her husband's dismissive words, through carelessness or due to her injured feelings,
doesn't seem to fit in with what is revealed about her character. Othello pushed
her away, it fell from her hands, they were in a hurry to get down to their guests,
she DID remember about it eventually, and ultimately, it was HIS choice not to discuss
his suspicions with her, while there still could have been a happier, or at least
less violent, resolution.
2.) Berger argues that both Othello and Desdemona are partially to blame for Othello's jealousy and violence. On what grounds does he make this assertion? Do you agree with his viewpoint? Explain.
The capacity for jealousy, and the desire to clear the deck of rivals, exists in all humans, especially the male, for biological as well as social / emotional reasons. Many a so-called "higher" mammal will actually kill the offspring sired by a prior male, in order to free the female to conceive and raise his own genetic bequest. Humans have developed social systems over the centuries to bypass this unpleasant solution to the problem, mainly in the form of attempting to sequester women from all sexual contact until a specific male takes possession via marriage, and enforcing that possession with legal penalties. Shakespeare apparently understood this well, but imputes less blame to Othello and Desdemona, than to Iago and even Emilia, who, in their own ways, chip away at their newly-minted marriage. He imputes less blame to his principal couple than Berger, though the latter, to his credit, DOES make harsher judgments on Emilia's inscrutable attitude.
In wealthy, powerful families like Desdemona's, the isolation and paternal control of wives and daughters was even more extreme than that of the majority. Her father loathes her marriage to Othello, but also rejected the suit of the well-born and sincere, but improvident weakling Roderigo. Desdemona, apparently left motherless at an early age, has been raised to be so shy anyway, that she turns away all the "curled darlings" of whom her father might have approved--- until the exotic Moor, not only outwardly utterly masculine, but sensitive and poetic in his private nature, starts visiting them.
Meanwhile, Othello hasn't exactly had a background conducive to a sturdy marital
On his own at an early age (carrying no family mementoes through all his travails, except, it seems, his mother's handkerchief), having been enslaved, then becoming a soldier of such great reknown, his services have been tapped by an alien culture. Whatever prior relationships he may have had with women, were, likely, of the sort that his second-in-command Cassio currently engages in--- "loose women" with whom a soldier might form a bond, but are NOT marriage material, if an ambitious man desires a dowered virgin bride, a well-run home, and, eventually, legitimate offspring. Iago keeps implying that Othello is middle-aged or older, which, in Shakepeare's time, was close to the average age of death. No doubt, someone like that, adrift in a foreign society, would have been extra desperate for companionship and an heir.
Then, he meets Desdemona, who not only is young, beautiful, wealthy, and bright, but shows great sympathy for his sufferings. This late love gives him a new lease on life. Yet, on a deeper level, he never REALLY confides in her, and she never learns the best way to communicate with him. Their mutual idealism and denial of their very crucial differences would likely, under other circumstances, eventually have caused a host of problems, especially once children started to arrive. However, disaster--- never mind that, out-and-out atrocity---was no more inevitable than it is with any other interracial, intercultural couple hoping against great odds to make their relationship work. At least, they would probably have had their honeymoon untainted--- except for the presence of Iago and Emilia.
It is hard to understand how Othello became such a great general, if he was so clueless about the sensibilities of the men under his command, especially those under his immediate scrutiny. It seems very short-sighted that he should have kept Iago close to him, after promoting Cassio, while keeping Iago and Emilia in the relatively humiliating positions of major-domo and personal maid After pitting the two soldiers against each other, and downplaying or ignoring the rumors about himself and Iago's wife, it would have been tactful and sensible, and even doing his "beloved friend" a favor, to station the ensign elsewhere, perhaps to finally earn his coveted rank under a different commander. Instead, the irrepressible, insinuating, glib, sociopathic "ancient" remains, determined to make the Moor feel every bit as miserable--- and then some--- as he does, and all because Othello can't seem to bear to part with him.
Berger has interpreted the personal interplay and what would, in the real world, be the normal beginning of establishing spheres of power in a new marriage, as almost deliberate attempts by Othello and Desdemona to cause each other grief. True, in a real-life situation, their personalities would inevitably have clashed, and they needed to get to know each other a lot better in order to better understand each other's behaviors, but the time limitations of drama (in this case, more like melodrama), and demands for immediate and exciting action, don't allow for such leisurely exposition.
Othello doesn't deliberately set up his bride to fail the test of "occular proof". It is an unfortunate coincidence that is part of the overall design of the play; the injury comes when he doesn't examine more closely, the source of contamination of his high hopes. When Iago tells him he saw Cassio use the handkerchief earlier that day, it becomes clear that Othello never really looked at the cloth that Desdemona had just used on his headache, or he, himself could have cleared his wife. He doesn't appear to start out with the intention of suspecting his wife when they've only been married a couple of weeks, and have only lately consummated their marriage, and there's been no indication that he found her less than virginal, co-operative, and satisfactory. (Likewise, Desdemona never complains that Othello hasn't been skillful, considerate, or satisfactory.) Unless he HAS suffered a failure of function, and somehow the hyper-sensitive Iago has picked up on it, either from Othello's manner, or what Emilia might have told him about a confidence of Desdemona's.
However, at this point, the audience is supposed to take at face value that Othello and Desdemona are happy as a clams at high tide, and Iago, who has successfully hidden his devious side so far, spoils the water by inciting Othello's latent insecurities. What is revealed is not that Othello has a jealous nature--- he doesn't even suspect jealousy in his ancient, who lost his chance at a promotion in rank to another, seemingly less-qualified candidate, and has also had to face humiliating rumors about his own wife's fidelity. What we find out about Othello is that he has led a deprived youth and turbulent adulthood that makes him fear the impermanence of any good thing that has ever happened to him, and, eventually, that he HAS killed impulsively and viciously (aside from fighting by rules of war), at least once, prior to what eventually transpires with Desdemona, and justified it as service to Venice. (Later, he tries to justify his murder of his wife as a service to other men she might injure.)
We also find that Othello is more apt to speak his mind freely--- too freely--- to men he trusts, than to his chosen woman. He is also rather vulnerable to suggestion--- odd in a military commander who must make the ultimate life-and-death decisions that could affect whole nations. Othello's mother allegedly gave him the handkerchief as a gift to aid his own marriage, but it is a gift that assumes fundamental mistrust of women in general--- no matter the wife's essential virtuous qualities, no matter WHAT she does; if she loses this old piece of embroidery, her husband will turn from her. Othello gave this to Desdemona without explaining its true purpose, almost like God in Genesis shows Adam and Eve the Tree of Knowledge and tells them not to eat its fruit, without fully explaining the true consequences if they do. This was a test of faith which, of course, Adam and Eve failed, but that was God's call, because, well, He's God. Othello had NO such excuse for expecting his bride to keep the handkerchief forever without proper warning of the consequences. But then, he might NOT have attached credence to the legend himself--- until it was lost AFTER his mind was already tainted. Then it became a self-fulfilling curse.
As for Desdemona, yes, it DOES seem, at times, as though she is sabotaging herself at the same time she is defending herself from these suspicions. However, again, it doesn't appear to be deliberate. She is young, and has led a very sheltered life, made more insular by her reputed shyness. Though the date is never specified, it appears that her mother has been dead for some years, at least since her adolescence. Thus, she hasn't had the benefit of her mother's advice and warnings during this crucial time of her life, and has lost the opportunity to observe more of her parent's marriage, other than to note that her mother rendered her first loyalty to Brabantio, which the girl intends to emulate with Othello.
Though unworldly in some ways, Desdemona DOES display a sense of humor, when Iago, who has made himself befriend her in the interim between her hasty wedding and her arrival in Cyprus, plies her with bawdy and cynical banter. However, she HAS been raised as the daughter of a Venetian noble, probably had to serve as hostess after her mother's death, and was, thus, familiar with some of the suggestive witticism. She's modest, but not prudish. Likewise, her "hand-paddling" with Cassio was probably just another convention of Venetian ladies; similar semi-flirtatious customs were observed in courts all over Europe. This marked her as typical of her culture, which Iago later insinuates as a criticism to further anger Othello, but in her heart, it seems that was far as it went. Not being in sync with her peers, she has formed her own idealistic beliefs about life and love. Desdemona probably thought of her championship of Cassio as a sisterly gesture, knowing how supportive the latter had been of her controversial romance and marriage with Othello.
However, she never gets the chance to know her husband well enough to avoid "pushing the button that lights up his angry-husband display", as Berger puts it. Berger argues that Desdemona goes from refusing to acknowledge Othello's jealousy, to wishing to demonstrate to those around her that she can rise above it--- by inciting it and then playing the injured innocent. Why anyone would WANT to invite the sort of abuse that Desdemona eventually suffers at Othello's hands is a mystery--- though such things DO happen in real life, the girl seems genuinely bewildered when the abuse occurs. Perhaps she was merely imitating the sort of domestic set-up she grew up with, either mimicking her mother, or reflecting her own methods for dealing with her indulgent father, who did not punish her, but became disillusioned enough to warn his new son-in-law.
If this had been a Shakespearean comedy rather than tragedy, Desdemona might have pulled the same tricks, found they cost her dearly, and tried another strategy to prove her moral superiority to her husband. It might also be that Shakespeare intended that Desdemona unconsciously DID want to be punished for her impetuous marriage to someone so different, that it estranged her from her only living parent and her former society. This is different from Berger's insinuations of her desire to manipulate, and beat the usual pattern of marriage in her era. Her behavior ranges from a desire to please too many people, to some self-righteousness, to victimhood, but in the circumstances under which she has come to live, which her background has not prepared her for, these contradictions may have been inevitable but not intentional. (It's barely enough that Berger DOES concede that Desdemona's "passive-aggressive" attitude toward Othello doesn't "adversely reflect" on her "loyalty and devotion to him.")
She might even be compared to Browning's much later poem, "My Last Duchess"---
life-loving, sweet-natured, impetuous, and mildly defiant, but probably innocent
and fatally misunderstanding her spouse. Othello is almost in the position of the
Duke of that poem; though he is far from cynical, he is also, fatally, full of wounded
pride; his use of his own power to stop HIS wife's smiles---and hot hand-paddling,
handkerchief-losing, and nagging on behalf of her friends--- brings him the guilt,
anguish, and death that the other truly deserved.
3.) What is the "Cassio Project"? Why does Berger feel Desdemona deliberately participates in fueling Othello's jealousy when she pushes this project?
This is Berger's nickname for Desdemona's almost obsessive efforts to help reinstate the disgraced Cassio, whose fall was engineered by Iago. Berger argues that, whether on purpose, to promote her own self-justification by provoking Othello's anger, or because she is truly clueless about her husband's lack of patience and potential for jealousy, Desdemona insists in irritating him as a means of gaining the upper hand in the relationship. That these disputes between the new couple are inevitable in the course of building their marriage, I have already examined. That Desdemona's sudden spirited insistence on her own way is ironically at odds with her initial announcement that she would put her groom's wishes first, would be, in another context, proof of the triumph of experience over hope, but not necessarily likely to end in sorrow.
Berger argues, however, that there is a discernable pattern in this discourse, of the wife's refusal to see the effects of her nagging on her husband, that leads to the couple's quick downward spiral, though he admits the general tone isn't consistent. He also doesn't criticize as much, Othello's stubborn refusal to confront his surprisingly headstrong bride with the suspicions about her persistent support of the former friend who, after all, DID help them in their quest to wed. Maybe that hasty decision was already rankling, even without fears of Desdemona's adultery with the lieutenant, and thus, another reason to punish Cassio.
However, as I outlined in the prior section, Desdemona, whose life experience up until her elopement seemed to be devoid of opportunities to learn of, and accept, what Berger calls the "game of marriage" in cynical Venice, did not see her constant entreaties on Cassio's behalf as worthy of suspicion. To her, as Berger says, it is a matter of gender conflict of wills between herself and her husband, rather than a sexual issue. As I have suggested, perhaps she sees it as almost a sisterly gesture toward Cassio, in gratitude for helping bring her and Othello together. She doesn't understand that there might be good reason to thus discipline a newly-commissioned officer who has been too easily tempted to chug wine, for which he has shown such a distressing, dangerous lack of tolerance. She may have had a veneer of sophistication to smile at Iago's sly jokes, but doesn't really know enough about men to suspect deeper reasons for her husband's mysterious reluctance and hostility about the matter.
She doesn't refuse to acknowledge her husband's jealousy--- she has been so recklessly open about her mission that it doesn't even enter her mind, until he gives her a hard time about the handkerchief and tells her the ominous story of its magical powers, which rattles her enough to successfully tempt her to lie. (To the bemusement of Emilia, who knows quite well who has the cloth.) Then, in an effort to divert his attention, because, apparently, she has nothing else going on that needs Othello's attention, Desdemona starts right in with her pet peeve, as though it was an issue of great urgency--- but then, her brother-like friend, Cassio, hysterically concerned about HIS reputation, must have made it seem so. Even in the context of the drama, this necessary scene is not well-constructed. Desdemona veers directly from her anxious fibs, headlong into her campaign, which can certainly give the impression that she's an obsessed ninny without a well-developed sense of empathy. But, by the same token, the "noble" Othello, too easily pricked in the weak spot he barely realized he had, has, rather abruptly, lost HIS.
When Desdemona comes to realize what her husband is really upset about, she goes in and out of denial, and seems to dig her own grave, but again, she is surrounded by people who are NOT giving her the information and guidance she needs. Plunged into a completely adult world where she must make decisions that hinge on the cynical and senselessly cruel whims of those whom she believed she could trust, the naive and slightly spoiled ingenue miscalculates her influence, and inadvertantly gives offense. Though she has pledged to give her first loyalty to her husband's wishes, she didn't realize how much that would stifle her natural urge to pursue the causes she believes are just, how much she would come to resent it, and how soon. But Desdemona's worst enemy isn't Iago, Emilia, Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, her own father, or even herself--- it was the denial of the time she needed to learn navigation of the rough waters of marriage and intrigue.