"I Saw Othello's Visage in His Mind (1.3.253)"
My first mini-essay on Desdemona concluded that she showed her strength in dealing with Brabantio on his turf by remaining silent. Rather than seeing silence from the perspective of some feminist critics as the "silencing of women," and thus their trivialization, I see her silence as pregnant, potent, overpowering. It is the means by which she defeats her father when he has all the high face cards. And I use the word "defeat" not because she looks at her response to him as a contest but because he, by posing the question of competing loyalties (1.3.179-181), has made it a competition.
Ultimately what is at stake for Desdemona, however, is not triumphing over her father but loving her husband. Her exposition of the reasons she loves Othello defines her essential character as a woman of loyalty and fidelity to him, and not simply to a picture of him gleaned from a story told by him, She has seen his visage as it appeared "in his mind," and she became knitted and consecreated to that visage.
Accompanying Othello to Cyprus
The occasion for Desdemona to speak her love for Othello occurs as the Senate appoints Othello to the command of the Cyprus mission (1.3.221-228). In vivid language, the Duke tells Othello that he must "be content to/ slubber the gloss of your new fortunes [make dirty or sully your new marriage] with this more/ stubborn and boist'rous expedition [to Cyprus--1.3.226-228)." The assumption then follows that Desdemona will remain in Venice, either at her father's home or elsewhere. But neither Brabantio nor Othello wants her there. Then the Duke inquires simply of her, "What would you, Desdemon (1.3.247)?" Her suggestion, to accompany her husband, is as unexpected as it is sincere. Now Desdemona is not simply challenging her father on the Senate floor by speaking her loyalty to Othello, but she is influencing state policy by her love for him. "Let me go with him," she says (1.3.259). The Duke relents and leaves the matter to the joint discretion of Othello and Desdemona.
Speaking her Love
But the reason why she does not want separation from him, even in the theater of a potential war, is her love. "That I did love the Moor to live with him,/ My downright violence, and storm of fortunes,/ May trumpet to the world (1.3.248-250)." Her "downright violence" is not simply her rash decision to elope but also to elope with a Moor. By going out on this limb, she can no longer be easily tied by society's constraints. She will have to accompany him.
But her statements of love and of submission to Othello are striking.
"My heart's subdued/ Even to the very quality of my lord./ I saw Othello's visage in his mind,/ And to his honors and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate (1.3.250-254)."
Three things are noteworthy about this passage.
1) She loves Othello for who he is and not for his outward appearance (older and black). Note that she uses Othello's name. It is not that she sees "his" or "my lord's" visage but Othello's. She sees his face in his mind. What that suggests to me is that his external characteristics are subsumed under, taken up in or somehow interpreted through the prism of Othello's inner being, his very character. In 21st century language, she sees to the heart, and she loves him for his heart.
2) She loves his "honors and valiant parts." Her love is not just a squishy, touchy-feely love because she is his soulmate but is one that is informed by his past struggles and present successes. The word "valiant parts" has a suggestive, possibly even a sexual connotation to it. She loves him, ALL of him.
3) She submits herself to him out of her love to him. Using both religious ("consecrate") and political/secular ("subdu'd") language, she speaks her submission. Her fortunes are not simply joined with his, but her heart yields to him. And, why does she do so? Does she submit because it simply is the cultural thing to do or because women "at that time" were "forced" to submit and thus became unwilling and silently oppressed victims of the menacing force of patriarchy?
It doesn't appear so. To read her declaration of submission as a sign of weakness just after she has shown nothing but strength (in her silence and in her speaking up) is not only to do violence to the text but to to violence to Desdemona. She finds herself in submission, gloriously realizing her strength in understanding and submitting to the very quality of her "lord." Now if THAT isn't about the most liberated feminist statement possible, what is?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long