We recently read Shakespeare’s play Othello in class. Now, I had already heard something about the play, and knew the basic plot, but I did not really expect to find the play as powerful as it was… and, strangely, it was not the character of Iago (who is considered the most interesting part of the play) that caught my attention, but rather the character of Desdemona. So I’m going to try to explain why this is.
Now, Desdemona is essentially a Virtue figure, in contrast with Iago the Vice figure (the entire play being based structurally on medieval morality plays, with Othello in the middle of these two forces). But, this is not a morality play. All of the characters in it are human, not allegories, I should hope – otherwise, why the hell are we even reading this play rather than just reading Mankind? And indeed, Desdemona is not purely virtuous – she definitely screwed up in eloping with Othello, for example.
But what’s interesting about Desdemona is how all of the men in the play interact with her (except Iago, who is a different story altogether). Even if she is human, none of them view her as such – they all see her basically as a goddess, someone to be worshiped because she is amazingly virtuous, beautiful, etc etc. And of course all the guys in the play seem to be in love with her because of this (Roderigo, Michael Cassio, Othello obviously…). And Othello is finally brought to kill Desdemona by Iago suggesting that she is not, actually, perfect, and is actually cheating on him.
So, we have an extremely virtuous woman, who is nonetheless human. How do we know she is human, not a goddess? Because we examined her faults and concluded she had them. Othello was under the delusion that she was a goddess as well, and was finally disabused of that notion – and brought to hate her – by examining her faults and concluding she had them. Drawing a loose connection between these two, it seems to me that, Othello is suggesting something like this: “When you are in love with someone in this disorderly worshipful way, the only way to stop worshiping them is to decide that they are not perfect – which will result in you not loving them at all”.
That’s a kind of disturbing thought. It means there is, really, no connection at all between true love and the kind of infatuation Othello is engaged in…