Winning the Daughter's Heart (1.3.128-170)
I used to think that when a person vigorously espoused a position in debate that he or she was passionately committed to that position. Indeed, if all of life were transparent, why would you think anything differently? People believe what they say; isn't that the way life is supposed to work?
But life is more complicated than that. Stories told by one person might be told more as a defense mechanism than as a quest for truth; more as of way of shifting blame from the self than as a means of seeking a just or accurate explanation of events. This, it turns out, was what happened in the case of Othello and Desdemona.
It happened, as Othello's uncontroverted testimony (as we say in law) has it, that Othello and Desdemona first met not through late-night trysts or secret encounters but because of an open invitation by Brabantio. As Othello tells the story, "Her father lov'd me, oft invited me;/ Still [continually] question'd me the story of my life/ From year to year (1.3.128-130)." In other words, it was good old dad, the Senator himself, who wanted to hear the exotic stories of the Moor's fantastic past.
One can imagine the urbane Brabantio, having lived a protected life safely within the confines of a civilized city, becoming titillated, stimulated, almost prurient in his desire for Othello's tales. 'Oh, Othello,' we can imagine him saying, 'tell me that story once again of the guys with heads beneath their shoulders or when you were sold into slavery. They did what to you?' And, just think, Brabantio would certainly not stay silent once he heard the tales. He then would become the talk of the town, the one sought-out for all the details on Othello's remarkable past. One can almost imagine Brabantio telling Othello's tales on sidewalk cafes, making the details even larger than Othello made them, giving the impression that he himself was there or was a direct witness to the things which he narrates. People wanted adventure stories, and Brabantio would be the conduit for those stories.
Desdemona Hears Also
But Brabantio was also the unwitting go-between in love. His daughter, who like the biblical Martha was "cumbered about much serving (Lk 7:40, KJV)," would occasionally hear Othello's stories but would then be called to her work. Then she would return and "with a greedy ear/ Devour up my discourse (1.3.149-150)." Othello realized that his story was having a dramatic effect on her. "I did consent,/ And often did beguile her of her tears, When I did speak of some distressful stroke/ That my youth suffer'd (1.3.155-158)."
It was this story that would move Desdemona to love for Othello. As he says, "She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd/ And I lov'd her that she did pity them (1.3.167-168)." In fact, he concludes, "This is the only witchcraft I have us'd (1.3.169)."
When Desdemona speaks she does not even have to confirm Othello's story; it has such a ring of authenticity to it that no one need confirm it, much less question it. And so the truth comes out: the father's rage and sense of betrayal is so strong because he himself, by his own greed for knowledge of the exotic, has become the instrument of his daughter's "fall." But this is just too much for someone to admit to himself, much less to all his friends. Actually, the effect of Brabantio's desire to make his "particular" grief to be a "general" grief means that his particular role in the "fall" of his daughter now becomes known to all. He now adds public shame or humiliation to his ever-growing accounts of woe. Can it be any surprise, then, that his "old thread" was "shorn in twain" and he died shortly thereafter (5.2.204-206)?"
But this truth, of Brabantio's unintentional role in the union of Othello and Desdemona, is a truth that comes out rather quickly and easily. The big truth of Othello will take longer to unfold. Seen in this light, Othello may be recognized as a play where finally the the whole truth "'twill out, 'twill out (5.2.219).'"
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long