OTHELLO: Think on thy sins.
DESDEMONA: They are loves I bear to you.
OTHELLO: Ay, and for that thou diest.
Thanks to generous friends who waited in line for hours in the morning last Wednesday, I had the chance to see Othello at Shakespeare in the Park. It was a gorgeous spectacle on an enchanted evening—birds flitting through the stage arches, beautiful actors brilliantly costumed, expert lighting energizing the illusion. Suddenly, the sun was no longer going down in Central Park but in Venice, and the moon rising in Cyprus. The whole audience was spellbound.
But by the end, waking from the spell, I was disturbed—more than I should have been. The final scene did not inspire horror and pity, as Aristotle says tragedy should, but rage. I’d just watched an idiot thug slaughter his innocent wife for no reason! My first thought was to march up onto the stage and kick him in the head. But I knew that wasn’t how I was supposed to feel. Othello is the title character; Iago is supposed to be the villain; after the murder Othello is even allowed a dignified speech in which he says, “nought I did in hate, but all in honor”.
“What kind of ‘honor’ is it to murder someone even if they have been unfaithful?” I fumed. “Shakespeare’s supposed to be a decent playwright! How could he have made such a gross miscalculation in making this sick butcher a tragic figure?” But then that word “honor” reverberated in my head and I realized, with a sinking feeling, that Shakespeare hadn’t made a mistake. According to the play’s internal logic, and the Bible, and the stinking 16th-century, Desdemona is guilty.
At the very beginning of the play, Roderigo and Iago wake Brabantio up to alert him to a secret marriage between his daughter and the Moor Othello: “Your daughter, if you have not given her leave…hath made a gross revolt”. This, according to Christian patriarchal tradition, is strict fact: it is the father’s sacred prerogative to approve his daughter’s marriage (Corinthians 7: 36-37), and Desdemona has done wrong.
Brought before the Duke to account for his actions, Othello answers the charge says that he did not trick Desdemona but persuaded her fair and square—she loved him of her own free will and was attracted to him for himself. She was at least ‘half the wooer’ — initiating the courtship by expressing interest in his stories and by dropping a hint as broad as an oil tanker:
she thank’d me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story.
And that would woo her.
The rest of the elopement has already been described to Brabantio. It does not show Desdemona in a particularly honorable light. Because Roderigo and Iago have evil designs, and because she herself later seems so fair and obedient to Othello, it seems as if they are slandering her, but the story is true:
Your fair daughter,
At this odd-even and dull watch o’ the night,
Transported, with no worse nor better guard
But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier,
To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor—
Brabantio was ignorant of the courtship and the marriage—the whole business was done in secrecy–without his knowledge and without his consent. The Duke, a figure of authority and justice, knows that Othello is a good general and necessary for the state’s security, so he advises Brabantio to make the best of it and to forgive the pair. Yet Brabantio is unable to forgive Desdemona’s ‘treason of the blood’, and regards her as essentially dead to him.
BRABANTIO: My daughter! O, my daughter!
DUKE OF VENICE Senator: Dead?
BRABANTIO: Ay, to me;
A child’s duty to a parent is part of a Christian’s duty to God; “Honor thy father and mother (Ephesians 6:2) is one of the Ten Commandments. This is not the first time Shakespeare has compared the breaking of a sacred tie of duty to spiritual death. Robert B. Bennet notes:
Speaking of mortal sin, Aquinas says that turning away from God is a death of the soul (ST 1a2ae 72.5). Shakespeare employs this mode of thinking explicitly in The Merchant of Venice within the context of broken bonds. When Launcelot Gobbo at the “fiend’s” prompting severs his servant-master bond with Shylock, he immediately thereafter, in jest, declares to his blind father that “Master Launcelot…is indeed deceas’d” (2.2.60-64). The context gives more truth to the supposed buffoonery than Launcelot intends. Later Bassanio, in accepting Portia’s ring, vows “when this ring, / Parts from this finger…/O then be bold to say Bassanio’s dead”) 3.2.183-85), a pledge realized not in physical death but in broken vow a few scenes later.
(Romance and Reformation: The Erasmian Spirit of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure by Robert B. Bennett)
If she can so easily break a familial tie and disregard the one task a well-bred woman was supposed to fulfil (ie obedience to her male guardian), how can she be trusted at all? Brabantio’s final words to Othello are prophetic:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
In the final act, looking on Desdemona’s corpse, Gratiano exclaims:
Poor Desdemona! I am glad thy father’s dead:
Thy match was mortal to him, and pure grief
Shore his old thread in twain
So by secretly eloping with her own choice of husband, Desdemona has not only deceived and disobeyed her father, she has actually killed him! This is a deadly sin (Exodus 20:13). Her final words suggest she finally realizes this and accepts her execution as a just penalty.
DESDEMONA: A guiltless death I die.
EMILIA: O, who hath done this deed?
DESDEMONA: Nobody; I myself. Farewell Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!
After Othello revealed his hatred by slapping her and calling her a whore, effectively breaking their bond, Desdemona asked Emilia to “lay on my bed my wedding sheets”. Later on, when undressing she adds “If I do die before thee prithee, shroud me/In one of those same sheets.”. This is an admission that by marrying according to her own will and not her father’s blessing, she dishonored and killed him (a mortal sin) and dug her own grave: appropriately, her bridal sheet is the same as her winding sheet. This all confirms Iago’s cynical but accurate observation that their marriage had “a violent commencement, and thou shalt see an answerable sequestration”.
This transgression was not punished by the state, as would have been appropriate, but by Othello, which adds an even darker aspect to the statement “I have done the state some service”.
Othello and Puritanism
In 1604 Othello was (probably) performed for the first time. In the same year, the newly crowned James I commissioned an ambitious new version of the Bible (the King James Version) and published Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical, perhaps the most important item of ecclesiastical law in the history of the Anglican Church. Both of these acts were partly in response to pressure from Puritans who wielded a strong influence over the Parliament.
In relation to marriage, canon LXII (under “Ministers Ordination and Function”) laid out laws designed to prevent clandestine marriage. Presumably this was at least partly in order to prevent Catholic weddings, which were illegal at the time:
“[N]o minister should marry any couple which has not published the Banns of Matrimony for three Sundays beforehand. The minister should only marry them between the hours of 8-12 at day in a church or chapel and not without the consent of parents (if one of them is under the age of 21).”
Puritanical influence could also be felt in a return to a more literal interpretation of scripture and Biblical notions:
“While the punishment for fornication in Shakespeare’s England was modest (the wearing of a penitential garment for several days or the payment of a fine), there was existing Puritanical sentiment for more stringent measures. Bishop Latimer had urged the young King Edward, in a sermon in 1550, to enact the death penalty for adultery: “There would not be then so much adultery, whoredom, and lechery in England.” Stanislav Andreski notes how John Calvin “narrow[ed] sexual freedom—not so much by introducing new restrictions as by a much stricter enforcement of the old prohibitions of fornication and adultery”. The “precise” Angelo [in Measure for Measure], who vigorously pursues enforcement of an old, neglected law, stands for an entire movement of religious agitators in England who had provoked, among other things, Richard Hooker’s exhaustive defence of Anglican thought on law, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. In part at least the Puritan intent was to revivify the word of scripture by instituting, to the letter, its ancient laws.”
p. 73 Romance and Reformation: The Erasmian Spirit of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure by Robert B. Bennett