‘As lovers, Othello and Desdemona either worship or despise each other, there is no middle ground’
In light of this view discuss how Shakespeare presents Othello’s and Desdemona’s attitudes towards one another in this extract and elsewhere in the play.
It is without a doubt that Othello’s attitude towards Desdemona goes from one extreme to another; He either worships her or despises her. Desdemona, however, is consistent in her love for Othello and worships Othello until her bitter end. One could describe the act of worshipping as obeying and idolising someone or something of power; Desdemona embodies this description as throughout the domestic tragedy she continually admires Othello, who as a man in the 17th century is considered more powerful. 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 particular extract derived 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. Perhaps it is the distinctive difference of attitudes (towards each other) that make Desdemona and Othello’s relationship doomed.
In this extract, Desdemona is presented as an extremely loyal wife and very much worships Othello. In fact, she directly labels herself as his ‘true and loyal wife’, to the audience’s dismay Othello is disbelieving of this fact. She further emphasises her loyalty through the motif of heaven; when commanded by Othello to ‘swear thou art honest’, Desdemona asserts that ‘heaven doth truly know it’ – this sentence had more weight during the Jacobean era where society was extremely religious and believed in both heaven and hell. Also, Desdemona uses the image of heaven to paint herself as angelic and draw on her pure, innocent reputation which functions as a way of making her death even more tragic. Additionally, Desdemona is presented as deeply caring for Othello in this extract, which is from later in the play, just before her death. Shakespeare uses many questions to convey Desdemona’s worry and her desire to clear any confusion in their relationship; she asks Othello ‘why do you weep? Am I the motive of these tears’. Desdemona then goes on to overwhelm the audience with more questions like ‘to whom, my lord? with whom? How am I false?’ Desdemona’s question after question creates a sense of panic and conveys a frantic tone. Whilst many feminists such as Lisa Jardine criticise Desdemona for becoming a ‘stereotype of female passivity’, it is clear that Desdemona passionately cares for Othello and wants to know what has hurt him perhaps because it hurts her to see her lover hurt. This passionate love for Othello is consistent right from the beginning to the end of the play. In Act 1, Desdemona bravely defies her father by boldly stating that ‘I love the Moor’ and ‘I am hitherto your daughter’; ‘hitherto’ suggests that her identity as Othello’s wife supersedes 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, yet Desdemona flies into the face of convention as a result of her worship-like love for Othello.
Whilst Desdemona’s worship-like attitude towards Othello is unwavering, Othello’s attitude towards Desdemona constantly fluctuates 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 by claiming that ‘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 him with affliction, had they rained all kinds of sores and shamed on my bare head’. The water imagery of ‘rained’ perhaps may allude to the Greek mythological figure Tantalus, who was punished in hell with intense thirst and placed in water up to the chin, but unable to drink it. This explores Othello’s self-love as he suggests that he is the only one suffering; he fails to recognise Desdemona’s state and forces his misconstrued conclusions on to her- he clearly does not worship her anymore. 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 Desdemona 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. Interestingly, Othello’s attitude to Desdemona undergoes a great transformation with the help of devil-incarnate 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 other tragedy ‘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 reconcile the emotions of love and jealousy that he feels. Othello’s ‘fountain from which my his 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 base imagery of smell, hell, weed and reptile/insects; He says, ‘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 – the weed is pretending to be a beautiful flower. It seems as though Othello is trying to justify himself despising Desdemona. Also, note how Othello’s language is racially charged, at the start of the play this was not the case thus making his change in attitudes clear. 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 has drastically changed throughout the course of the play, whereas Desdemona’s love and loyalty is strong until the tragic end. In Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ he asserts that true love is a ‘marriage of true minds’ which suggests that 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, with no middle ground. Also, it is interesting how when a man has a change in attitude a woman has to bear the brunt of it; This is misogyny at its finest.