Desdemona’s Innocence (8/15)

It is worthwhile to consider that Desdemona—in her steadfast and unwavering loyalty to the Moor—is devoted to an elaborate cluster of fictions which bear little authentic connection with reality. Her unflinching faithfulness to this seductive storyteller (and story-believer—making the link between him and Iago closer than is observable at first glance) is presented in the play in its best light, as though her childlike innocence and unsullied sweetness were unequivocal virtues. But a little suspicious poking and prodding reveals a certain stupidity or willful ignorance lurking behind her almost universally applauded ‘goodness.’ Where might Desdemona be stupid? Of what might she be willfully and obstinately ignorant?

It is perhaps in the charming bedtime scene where she and the earthy and worldly-wise Emilia converse about the sexual ‘weaknesses’ of men and women that we see the extent of Desdemona’s startling—if not shocking—childlike purity. One suspects that if Othello had been able to overhear this conversation—instead of plotting the murder of this harmless child in order to uphold his ‘honor’—he would have immediately come to his senses and eviscerated Iago instead. This pure, white little ‘moral fool’—let us remember—can scarcely bring herself to say the word ‘whore,’ let alone contemplate being one! Desdemona is like Eve before being tempted by the serpent—although her ‘revolt’ against her father (in eloping with that ‘foreigner,’ the Moor) thrusts her out of the protected Venetian garden and into the turbid and turbulent sea of Cyprian adult experiences—a sea in which she is evidently ill-prepared to swim, even if her angelic buoyancy prevented her from sinking like most of us would after a brief tussle with the waves!

We must ask: If such goodness utterly lacks the means to be mindful of its own preservation and protection against the multitude of evils—subtle and gross—that abound in the world and in the depths of the psyche, then can it really be worth all that much? Eve’s innocence, one might argue, left her easy prey to the subtle manipulations of her tempter—as neither she nor Adam had sufficient first-hand experience of evil to draw upon when the serpent made his fork-tongued pitch to her. It was Othello’s alluring account—his speeches about his trials and adventures on the battlefield and in the school of hard knocks—that seduced Desdemona in the first place. It was this fantasy-image, if you will, of his ‘romantic-heroic’ exploits and sufferings that won over her heart and her loyal love. But this is vicarious experience, no real substitute for the all-demanding trials and tribulations that must be suffered upon the actual battlefield of adult human experience—or in the shark-infested waters into which she was cast as she broke with (and eventually broke) her father, plighting her troth to the Moor?

Both Desdemona and Cassio are, to a notable extent, hothouse plants—refined, exquisite products of privileged circumstances and lavish cultivation. They recognize and value this polished, ‘courteous’ quality in one another. Such polish and cultivation is noticeably lacking in the rough Othello and the base Iago. Othello admires and perhaps even envies such refinement and cultivation as he finds in his lieutenant and in his prized wife. Iago, on the other hand, while outwardly (hypocritically) respectful towards these social superiors, is inwardly contemptuous of such ‘impractical’ and generally feckless cultivation. Like Machiavelli, Iago is a champion of expediency, ‘commodity,’ and practical results. ‘Theory’ and social refinements are, for him, mere ornaments and masks behind which ineptitude and unearned privilege find a place to hide. Iago senses—rightly—that, despite his actual, prolonged experiences on the battlefield and in the camp, Othello is foolishly enamored (or bamboozled) by all this frippery and elegant nonsense—and Iago’s cunning exploitation of this ‘weakness’ is one of the principal means by which he subdues Othello to his ‘Satanic’ will. Iago subtly insinuates that, in their clandestine affair, Desdemona and Cassio are privately asserting rights and privileges—derived from birth and breeding—to maintain an alliance (with ‘benefits’) from which Othello will always be barred full membership. Perhaps it is Othello’s gnawing, tormenting suspicion that not even his marriage to Desdemona can magically qualify him for inclusion within her privileged class which ultimately ‘gets his goat.’ In entertaining this idea, we surely needn’t throw out sexual jealousy as a principal motivator behind the murder of his beloved-detested wife. But if we take note of Othello’s repeated, emphatic concerns for his honor—which persist to his final moment—we have to assume that wounded pride or touchy self-regard certainly vie with wounded love and disappointment with Desdemona as ‘the cause’ of her murder.

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