‘Listen, Pops’: Desdemona Speaking
Vahni Capildeo If you think of Shakespearean characters who refuse to die, masculine heroes might come to mind. In Antony and Cleopatra, Mark Antony gloriously drags out his unsoldierly demise. In Hamlet, the prince’s procrastination, ostensibly a refusal to kill the king (since adapting to court life is clearly not an option for him) is also a refusal to be either killed or crowned. It is, however, the women who are dramatically addicted to being alive. The comedies spring to mind, with their pretend deaths: the fainting Hero in Much Ado About Nothing; in A Winter’s Tale, the long-gone Hermione who plays her own statue that disconcertingly is warm to the touch. These women have been ‘killed’ by bad words; the suspicion cast on them by men. Their resurrection, absurd and fabulous at plot level, brings serious embodiment as well as wondering laughter to the stage. It is a promise of new life, if and when faith can be renewed. That is a lot to carry.
Strangely, it is a woman in a tragedy who shows the most terrible vitality of all, yet tends to be remembered as a broken doll: Desdemona; and what she has to carry, in language, is even more than the women of the comedies. When the multitalented Dan Burley, as a musician, famously picked up on and compiled Harlem slang, he also wrote his own versions of well-known dramas, including Othello, ‘As Conceived in Harlem Jive’. This is now available in Thomas Aiello’s edition, Dan Burley’s Jive (Cornell University Press, 2009), which comprises Original Handbook of Harlem Jive (1944) with his Diggeth Thou? (1959). It is easy to delight wildly and precisely in Burley’s language, but it would be as reductive to view him as parodying Shakespeare, as it would be po-faced to analyze him as making a creative translation of the English Bard.
Notably, like Verdi and Boito before him when they refashioned Othello into the opera Otello, losing Venice to gain bonfires, ballet, the devil in music, and prayers, Burley seems to think Desdemona deserves more lines; that she was not given enough to say for herself before, or maybe that she is a character whose nature it is to be unstoppable. His playlet is a version of Shakespeare’s super-compressed Act V, scene ii which goes on for pages, long after henpecked Othello says ‘Don’t beat up thy chops, so much, chick!’ Burley’s Othello is determined to ‘Stash the spark, and then, I say, Stash the spark!’ His Desdemona is as gabby in the bedchamber as she was when on the docks of Shakespeare’s Cyprus, asking her husband: ‘What are thou putting down; And, what is thy play?’ Jive Desdemona tries to survive, and to thrive: she invites Othello to sleep with her and to listen to her, in modes both sensual/sexual and domestic/nurturing: ‘Wilt thou stash thy fine brown frame on this righteous softy with me, ole man, and let me soft gumbeat thee a bedtime fable?’ Elements of the whole play zoom, smoulder and sparkle through the flashback and allusion of established couple chat, as we learn that ‘the stud, Cassio’ has fallen victim to ‘that square, Iago’ who ‘is down with the action’.
Stop a moment and consider: how many times does Desdemona refuse to die, in Shakespeare’s Othello? She asks for time to say ‘one prayer’. Othello tells her ‘too late’. The seasoned combatant, Othello, fails to snuff his
6 reports capildeo delicate young wife on the first go. As Desdemona’s attendant Emilia calls to be let into the bedchamber, Othello asks himself, or asks his expiring wife: ‘Not dead? not yet quite dead?’ He pronounces ‘She’s dead’, before letting in Emilia, who has continued to raise a ruckus. Emilia comes in and announces the death of young Roderigo at the hand of Othello’s preferred lieutenant, Cassio. Desdemona comes back to life sufficiently to denounce the injustice: ‘O, falsely, falsely murder’d!’ Unavoidably, this announces her own murder, botched murder, or murder-in-progress.
She must be living for something. Is it to accuse Othello? No. She tells Emilia her own death is ‘guiltless’, which has a double meaning. Yes, the adjective may serve as an assertion of Desdemona’s innocence, in a play where a competitive, military and multicultural setting turns up the heat on characters to guard or attack reputations by living out virtue, or its loss, as a performance. Yet, living long enough to answer Emilia’s question about the murderer’s identity, Desdemona offers a riddle: ‘Nobody; I myself’. She dies remembering her ‘kind lord’.
The point here is hardly that Desdemona is covering for or enabling an abuser, thus dying a liar, as Othello does not hesitate to call her. While Burley’s Desdemona is more fun, as she tries to tough it out and prolong a conflict into resolution, i.e. move through tragedy into comedy, Shakespeare’s Othello and Desdemona have insane ambition. They attempt a vast linguistic challenge: to follow a Petrarchan courtship with a thoroughly Christian marriage. In the language of the play, this means making the conventional courtly exchange of epithets such as ‘fair warrior’ and ‘dear’ carry the weight of a mutual and unbreakable oneness. It means the tingle and tinsel of beautiful utterances made by compelling actors has to accompany, while counting for less than, the substantial unity implied and created by the exchange. Style and substance are both at one and at odds.
Iago’s mirroring or corrupting of his companions’, especially Othello’s, speech habits receives popular attention for its vicious and seductive cleverness, notably in Verdi’s opera where Iago launches audibly exact yet toxic echoes of others’ song. Just as fascinating, whatever one’s views, is how the religious and conjugal oneness desired by the idealistic and unhappy pair equally could be traced at length in their sharing and borrowing of lexis and syntax, and not least their turn-taking. They often choose to give each other voice rather than speak, for example near the beginning when Desdemona objects volubly to the Venetian officials’ suggestion that she stay in Cyprus, and Othello quietly agrees with her. He stands aside in order to stand with, in a speaking-after which is humbler and more committed than a speaking-for, significantly different from a superior holding silence then giving approval.
Desdemona therefore finally insists on dying in a state of identification with Othello. She remains purely married, purely in language, even if the marriage has ended with their lives. Othello’s morbid running of checks to see if she is still alive is thus as much dialogue as soliloquy; he, too, remains involved, though fallen. What framework of understanding, if any, can we find for two articulate lovers who lead each other to such a place? The idea of active consent in Othello will be explored in an essay to follow.