February 18

April 10, 2016

at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

by WIlliam Shakespeare
directed by Jonathan Munby

A Scholar's Perspective

Presented by the John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Inquiry and Exploration Series

by Wendy Wall

But that I love the gentle Desdemona, / I would not my unhoused free condition/ Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea’s worth.

What does it mean to feel “at home”? To have a place in society? And what does race have to do with place? Shakespeare’s most domestic tragedy takes up these issues by showing what is at stake in the marriage between a white Venetian woman and a black immigrant military hero converted from Islam. The first scene in Othello makes “home” central to its exploration of “the green-eyed monster” jealousy, as Othello oddly describes his loss of bachelorhood as the state of being “housed.” He announces himself as someone whose place in society is outside of it, unhoused, in temporary tents used in military crusades. Beneath the veneer of the old ball-and-chain complaint about marriage, we discover the depth of Othello’s anxiety about how to locate himself. Described as a “wheeling stranger of here and everywhere,” he finds marriage a sure way to assimilate, to provide a durable place in the world.

And yet the tragedy of the play turns on the inequality of the dream of belonging. Othello opens with Iago clamoring to Desdemona’s father in the night: “Awake, Brabantio! Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags! . . . your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs.” In his prejudicial view, daughters are material goods, and Othello and Desdemona’s marriage, a pornographic bestial melding. Guarding the house means protecting a particular idea of family. As Mercutio’s curse upon the Capulets and Montagues suggests in Romeo and Juliet, the “house” is more than a physical structure; for it signifies lineage, community, and family.

The striking irony posed by the opening marriage is that Brabantio disowns his daughter just as Othello is joining a supposedly stable family. Shakespeare hits this point home by including a lengthy discussion about where the exiled Desdemona will live once Othello goes to war.  As Othello houses himself in the solid affiliation she offers, Desdemona becomes a wandering stranger of here and everywhere.  Such is the art of the first act of Othello where the stakes of marriage, identity and belonging are conveyed by reference to the social meaning of home.

The eerie fascination of the play rests in part on Iago’s success in getting Othello to see himself as an outsider. Othello was the first black tragic hero on the English stage, appearing at a time when England started to invest in the African slave trade.  As a black man, he exists on the margins of culture. So when Othello says of Desdemona, “When I love thee not, chaos is come again” (with chaos, for a Renaissance audience, being the ultimate nothingness), we understand the stakes of fidelity for him.

Incited into jealousy by Iago, Othello begins to see his own skin as a sign of his degradation: “Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face,” he declares. Othello begins to view his own marriage as unnatural and out of place. The logical extreme of this view culminates in Othello’s final poignant suicide speech, where he splits into two identities: the insider Christian hero and outsider enemy. In his final moments, Othello imaginatively converts the violence of the bedroom into a remote battlefield in the Middle East. Attempting to prove himself a war hero (rather than a wife-killer), Othello ends up alienating himself as the stranger-infidel he has so courageously fought.

Othello is perhaps Shakespeare’s most anti-theatrical play, the text that most graphically portrays the devastating effect of believing in a reality shaped by words, performances and images—by what one character calls “false gazing.” In making Othello conjure tortuous mental images of his wife as adulterous (and crediting these illusions as true), Iago becomes the consummate playwright, actor, and director—someone able to weave an alternate reality for those around him.  He transforms a mundane and domestic stage prop—a handkerchief—into “ocular proof” of infidelity. He uses illusions to estrange the familiar.

Yet with some poetic justice, the handkerchief is the one smoking gun that unravels Iago’s web of fictions and reveals the truth at the conclusion. Disclosing Iago’s manipulation of the handkerchief, Emilia—Desdemona’s maid and Iago’s wife—emerges as the play’s unexpected hero. Standing defiantly by the dead Desdemona, she calls for justice even at the threat of death. How does Shakespeare present her heroism? As a new and improved vision of domesticity. When Iago commands, “I charge you get you home,” Emilia boldly declares, “Perchance Iago I will ne’er go home.”

In a play whose first act meditates on the role of home for establishing kinship and social place, the final scene shows a wife refusing home as a place vulnerable to poisonous fantasies. Not only has the household ceased to function ethically and socially, but its dream of inclusion is shown to be especially dangerous for women and racial outsiders. Belonging, being housed, having a place: Othello brilliantly uncovers the fragility of these desires in a world where home is as illusory as theater.

Wendy Wall, Professor of English at Northwestern University, specializes in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, 1500–1660 and is the author of Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama, and the newly published Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen.

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