Goodness, Wholeness, and Desdemona (8/15)

I am encountering some murky but massive resistances to Harold C. Goddard’s idealization of Desdemona in his critical treatment of Othello in The Meaning of Shakespeare. He displays an unconditional reverence for Christian saintliness—and he finds pay dirt in the ‘perfect’ character of Desdemona. I have often come away from Goddard’s penetrating interpretations of the plays with the strong suspicion that he’s reading more Christian morality (and implicitly, Christian moral prescriptions or exhortations) into the plays than Shakespeare intentionally (or unintentionally) put there. This struck me powerfully while I was reading his canonization of Desdemona to sainthood.

My insight pertained to Shakespeare himself—as a comprehensive thinker and peerless psychologist, whose play, Othello, does not strike me so much as a vehicle for promoting Desdemona’s character (and her particular way of being in the world, her world) as a profound attempt to understand how, among other things, such goodness (as she embodies) is responded to and acted upon by others who are neither so good nor so innocent as she is.

Would it be outrageous to suggest that characters like Desdemona—and perhaps Cordelia, as well—are possibly regarded by Shakespeare as ‘too good for this world’? She certainly turns out to be too good for Othello, who simply has no idea how to deal with such an exquisite ‘pearl.’ Goddard is absolutely right about one thing when he writes, “Othello regarded Desdemona’s love for him as a dream too beautiful to be true.” (p. 88). Shakespeare’s extraordinary mind was not bound or hemmed in by the moral ideals that he nonetheless recognized and appreciated for their rarity and nobility. He cannot be reduced to an eloquent valet and mere advocate for Christian values and ideals. This, however, is the Shakespeare that Goddard often seems to distill from the plays.

My sense about Shakespeare is that, so far as human fulfillment and wisdom are at issue, he was rather more concerned with psychological truth and wholeness than with mere moral goodness and righteousness. The attainment of authentic wholeness almost surely entails moral goodness, but moral goodness is by no means equivalent to the attainment of wholeness. Desdemona was unquestionably good but it is highly doubtful that she can be credited with having attained wholeness. Why do I say this? Because if she had, it is doubtful that she would have behaved as she does in the play. The whole person is attuned to the shadowy, unlit, and potentially problematic elements within him- or her-self and not innocently oblivious to these complicating— and potentially trouble-making—elements lurking within even the ‘best’ and most beloved others. They may, however, refrain from condemning such persons for embodying or expressing these darker elements. In her touching innocence, Desdemona seems utterly oblivious and immune to the ‘unchristian,’ diabolical elements and menacing, unruly passions in Iago and in Othello. The Sicilians have a famous, if slightly sardonic, proverb: “He’s so good, he’s good for nothing.” Her utter inability to register these harmful psychic pathogens that eventually do her in does not magically exempt her from responsibility for coming to real terms with these darker elements in which the world, then and now, abounds. If Goddard’s Christian moral idealism evinces a wry smile from me now and then, my mild irriation is mingled with regret that so fine and sensitive a reader and critic has emphasized a particular kind of moral interpretation at the expense of Shakespeare’s considerably more comprehensive accomplishments as a ‘moraline free’ psychological observer of human nature.

Presumably, H.C. Goddard—if compelled to choose between the character of Desdemona (as an exemplary human existence) or the comprehensive (and by no means ‘innocent’ or merely ‘good’) consciousness that spawned her (along with Iago, Othello, Lear, Cordelia, Hamlet, etal.) would have had the good sense to pick the latter. But then, the labor and love he poured into his book—which is about the ‘meaning,’ not merely of Desdemona, but of Shakespeare—makes clear what really captured his wonder and awe. But every time he tries to make Shakespeare the advocate or champion of particular (i.e. Christian) moral ideals and values, his love and labor are in danger of being lost on a chimera. In saying this I am certainly not suggesting that Shakespeare has no respect for virtues and values that are recognizably, if not conspicuously, Christian. I merely mean to suggest that, for Shakespeare, the embrace and even the embodiment of these particular virtues insufficiently equip us—as human beings—for a whole life in this world. Nietzsche fantasized about ‘Caesar with the soul of Christ.’ John Danby, in his provocative study of King Lear[1], argues that Shakespeare, too, came to learn that neither mere (Christian) goodness nor mere Machiavellian expediency were alone sufficient for rule over the state—but some kind of harmonization of these seemingly incommensurable or discordant elements. Such a harmonization or reconciliation would be almost impossible to attain, let alone, sustain (since it requires good men ruling over a good community). Such harmonization of the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ propensities of the members of the well-ruled community is a dynamic, fluid condition—not a static one brought about by mere conformity with some rational-dogmatic or theocratic blueprint. Ideals can be aimed at but never permanently maintained in the cultural, moral, and political spheres. Recalcitrant, wayward human nature—like a vast, glutinous-odoriferous tar pit—lures and eventually captures even the highest-flying and solitary winged creatures of the air. The wise and astute Goddard sometimes speaks as if he fails to understand or respect these hard, permanent truths about our human situation. Could ‘Desdemona’ be magnified—by herself, as she is in the play—into a ruling principle (like a king, actually and symbolically understood)? As ruling principle in the actual world, wouldn’t Desdemona—like Henry VI—call forth a Machiavel (like Richard III) to do her in? Isn’t this precisely what happens, in fact, in Othello—and in King Lear, as well?

[1] Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear, 1948


2 thoughts on “Goodness, Wholeness, and Desdemona (8/15)

  1. Paul, I’ve entered my reply on a false column, after sharing this article via Facebook to my Timeline. So you’d have to search for it on my Timeline, in which I’ve posted two answers.. This was the best piece of fine thinking and writing I’ve seen by you so far, which really stirred me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps a Desdemonian wishfulness hollows a Desdemonian vacuum (a purity of blindness) in the critic’s skull. Each reader becomes an actor in the thing he reads, stepping on an imaginary stage to read but not necessarily understand the writing on his own psyche’s wall. One is only as stable as one’s foundation, dumbfounded, confounded, profound-ed; yet as each character or act is written to its denouement, no reader or witness leaves a theater or a book unchanged. If each character’s head were a cabbage, Desdemona’s has a fine surface but a hollow interior. Iago’s too, on the surface, is an immaculate and honest cabbage but deeply riddled, fevered, strafed with nasty cabbage worms. Othello begins relatively intact until the worm enters via his ears. Mamma and a handful of insane folks warned us many years ago and many centuries repeated– the dangers of ingesting words (Caliban earthbound/Ariel unbounded.) If Paul’s analysis (of the analysis) is correct, and I believe it is, there is something sweet, and fond in the critic’s misreading. Something not truthful, yet piously praiseworthy, a living fiction equal/equi-valent to the fiction of a Desdemona, a testimony to the integrity, the veracity of Shakespeare’s primafacie reading of all humanity. We all arrive and leave this theater together. Elated, enchanted I am compelled to call out ” Mercutio, Banquo, Falstaff (perhaps especially you) et al– I recognize you. My fellow cabbage heads-I love you–(though deeply disappointed with some of you). Fare-thee-well: Have a safe journey home.”

    Liked by 1 person

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