In the third week of the Othello Falling benefit, I delve deeper into the sexual relationship of Othello and Desdemona. It’s a part of the play that has been controversial for different reasons in the past. Race, of course, has given the physical side of the marriage a “forbidden” aspect, more or less so depending on the current state of society – but it’s clear upon reading the original Shakespeare that it is not a morality piece about race. Shakespeare’s choice of Othello’s ethnicity comes from the play’s roots, as it is based on the Italian short story "Un Capitano Moro" ("A Moorish Captain") by Cinthio, first published in 1565.
In fact there are no overt sex scenes in the play. But in the relationship of the characters, as is true in many relationships that become violent or abusive, sexuality plays a large part. The “Othello” paintings of Nabil Kanso (huge canvases filled with primary colors and fevered sensual imagery), seem to portray the entire relationship as a tortured sexual one.
I have, in my experience assisting battered women, known many who told me they stayed with their abuser in part because of fear and intimidation, and in part because they felt the sexually romantic lover who initially wooed them must still be present somehow – still accessible, and it was impossible to give up on the belief that the passionate love they shared was somehow unreal.
I think it’s safe to say that communication between individuals is often at its most flawed when it should be at its best: during sexual bonding. People hide their feelings, or pour them out—they make assumptions, take on roles that they feel are expected or desired—vulnerability and intensity go hand in hand, carving volatile new paths into the psyche; or unearthing old, painful experiences, which each new bonding was supposed to have made all better.
My goal in this poetic interpretation, of course, is to try and illuminate some of the factors that contribute to violent relationships. And so as I look at the wedding night of Othello and Desdemona, I see him troubled by the passionate sexuality she displays: as a soldier, he is used to passion being displayed by camp followers (prostitutes), and to see similar lights of passion in his wife’s eyes is difficult for him to reconcile. He has idealized married love (particularly to a noblewoman, like Desdemona), and expected some kind of revelation in her sensual behavior – an impossible mix of goddess-like detachment from sexuality while at the same time enjoying it with him. At first he blames himself for not seeing that in her, but that will change, as the seeds of possessiveness and jealously grow. As for Desdemona, she continues to exalt her marriage as a symbol of new freedom and strength, and puts Othello in her mind far above the petty aristocratic noblemen who have surrounded her in the past. He is not really there as a person in her perceptions, and so she misses every signal of his sudden doubt in her qualities as a woman of “great heart”. They are objects to one another, and this, more than anything, lays the groundwork for the feelings of mutual betrayal that are soon to grow into violence.