The Bed Sheets (4.2.105)
The Ambiguity of the Wedding-Sheets
After Othello's vicious verbal onslaught against Desdemona, she is shocked and bewildered. When Emilia asks her how she is doing, all she can say is "Faith, half asleep (4.1.97)." Verbal attacks are not unlike, and may be worse than, physical assaults: they leave a person breathless, hurt, confused, grief-stricken. When Emilia asks her further what the matter is with "my lord" (i.e., Othello), she answers that she doesn't know and then says, with respect to having a lord, "I have none (4.1.102)." Something in the ferocity and the icy resolve of Othello convinced Desdemona that their relationship now was over.
Did she imagine divorce? Unlikely. Death? More probable. Why didn't she run? But where would she go? Take the next boat from Cyprus back to dad, a dad who has already disowned her and may, by this time, already have died of grief (cf. 5.2.205)? Impossible. Is she just another victim of "domestic abuse," so omnipresent in our culture in the early 21st century? It's not that simple, and stories of domestic violence never are. Love intertwines both of them, drawing them together but also gradually strangling both. Othello is no less imprisoned in an ever-shrinking space as is Desdemona. Her physical confinement mirrors his mental circumscription.
The Meaning of the Sheets
In this situation, Desdemona asks Emilia to lay her wedding- sheets on the bed (4.2.105) and then call Iago. The presence and meaning of the wedding-sheets has been the subject of much speculation. The central issue revolves around whether the sheets are a testimony to Othello of her fidelity or an emblem of the winding sheets used to shroud a dead body. And the question behind the question is whether their marriage was ever consummated. Shakespeare leaves these questions tantalizingly unanswered but gives fodder for all sides.
The Sheets as Testimony
In European culture of Shakespeare's times, the display of blood-stained wedding sheets after marriage as testimony or evidence of a woman's virginity was common. Blood-stained sheets meant that her hymen had been penetrated for the first time; therefore her father and her husband had not been humiliated by the union. If this is the meaning of what Desdemona was about in telling Emilia to lay out the sheets, it assumes that the sheets were streaked with blood and that her laying them on her bed was a mute sign to the jealous Othello that his wife was, in fact, "pure" when they eloped. And, since the elopement has just occurred a few days previously, it would have been impossible for her to have played the wanton and "coped" with Cassio.* There are indications in the play that consummation has occurred. For example,
[*Scholars have for at least a century pointed out the apparent "double-time" in the play: that on one reckoning the entire action of the play takes only a few days to unfold, but if one takes hints throughout the play (such as the length of time for Othello to arrive in Cyprus), the duration of the play is weeks or months. It is an interesting problem but not one that concerns me here.]
when Othello announces a day of general celebration in Cyprus after the Turkish fleet has foundered (2.2), others go to celebrate while Othello says to Desdemona, "Come, my dear love,/ The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue;/ That profit's yet to come 'tween me and you (2.3.9-10)." Then they retire to their residence, and the reader is led to conclude that conjugal relations follow. Though Othello is roused from their intimacies later in the night to quell the civic disturbance, several hours seem to have passed in the interval.
And, even more powerfully, the blood-stained bedsheets would then function in the play as the handkerchief writ large. Recall that the handkerchief was sewed by a sybil, a prophetess, and given to Othello's mother as a sure-fire method to "subdue" her husband "entirely to her love (3.4.60)." It was spun out of silk derived from consecrated worms and "it was dy'd in mummy [blood or fluid drawn from dead bodies thought to have medicinal or magical powers] which the skillful/ Conserv'd of maidens' [virgins'] hearts (3.4.74-75)." Thus it was a silken napkin dyed with red strawberries. The blood-red stain on the "miniature sheets" was taken from women, to be sure, but from 'pure' women, 'unviolated' women, after their deaths. It was an ultimate sign of purity since the hymenic blood had not flowed from the women. Thus, if the bedsheets were stained, they would be like the handkerchief: the blood was taken from a maiden, a pure one, and the sheets then are the permanent token of her purity.
Confusion about the Handkerchief
Yet the levels of symbolism in the handkerchief invite further speculation. Its "magic" rested on the fact that the blood of dead virgins stained it. If the handkerchief was a symbol of the sheets, maybe the sheets were not yet stained because she had not yet died. Maybe she needed to remain virginal and die shedding her blood so that the analogy would be complete. Indeed, Othello, after discarding the idea of "cutting her to messes" and poisoning her, wavers between strangling/smothering her and shedding her blood. In his rage early in Act V he says, "Strumpet I come./ Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are blotted;/ Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust's blood be spotted (5.1.34-36)." He finally relents in 5.2 and decides not to shed her blood, and later in the scene he looks down at his dead wife and observes that she is as "pale as thy smock (5.2.273)." Though "smock" is usually understood to mean one's garment or clothing, if indeed the sheets had become her "shroud," as Desdemona says in 4.3 ("If I do die before thee, prithee shroud me/ In one of these same sheets"--4.3.24), they may be thought to have become her "smock" by the end of the play. When Othello then says her visage is "pale as they smock," he would then be saying that the sheets which she was now "wearing" were also "pale"--i.e., unbloody.
I think that Shakespeare deliberately leaves the issue ambiguous/ confuses the reader. Through the ambiguity he may be trying to say that issues swirling around infidelity, jealousy, purity and loyalty are so laden with emotions and layers of insoluble meaning that we cannot even "solve" the first issue of whether the couple ever had sexual relations. Because we cannot solve that issue, we cannot achieve any satisfactory resolution of the deeper issues stated above. Perhaps Shakespeare is trying to tell us that there is no "bedrock" of truth or clarity when these emotions come into play. Ambiguities in symbols reflect the wildly different interpretations that can be laid on our actions. We, like the equivocal bedsheets, are both stained and unstained. Not bad for "trifles light as air (3.3.322)."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long