Looking On (4.1 and 4.3)
The Power of Identifying with Performance
Before Othello acts by slapping Desdemona (4.1.240), and before Desdemona acts by going to bed at Othello's command (4.3), they both either witness something or call upon their past knowledge to give impetus to their current action. Othello witnesses a "performance" between Iago and Cassio; Desdemona recalls a song sung by her mother's maid. By entering into those modes of representation, both Othello and Desdemona become reconciled to what they must do. They also teach us the power that visual experience and memory have to direct present action.
Othello Watches (4.1.100-170)
Shakespeare uses a familiar device to enflame Othello's passion: to have him witness, out of earshot, a conversation. It is between Iago and Cassio, and it is about Bianca but because Iago has prepared Othello to think it concerns Desdemona, it is interpreted by Othello to be about his wife. Three aspects of the "performance" call for comment: first, is Othello's observance of it as a third-person spectator; second, is Othello's mental entrance into it as a second-person accuser; and third, is Othello's mental joining of the action by completing the meaning of the witnesssed event by his supplemental interpretation. By using these three devices, Shakespeare has drawn Othello fully into the action.
First, Othello as observer. Cassio and Iago begin to talk, and Othello must interpret gestures in order to limn meaning. Iago says something to make Cassio laugh, and Othello quickly says, "Look how he laughs already," and "Now he denies it faintly, and laughs it out (4.1.109,112)." No doubt he is becoming enraged, but he is still at third-person distance, observing and commenting on "his" (i.e., Cassio's) behavior.
Second, Othello as accuser. Iago continues to ply Cassio with comments and questions about Bianca's love for him. Cassio bursts out laughing, "Ha, ha, ha (4.1.117)!" Othello responds, "Do you triumph, Roman? do you triumph?" and, later "Have you scorn'd me (4.2.126)?" When Othello begins to construe Cassio's laughs as triumphant laughter, as a kind of victory wreath representing his "conquest" of Desdemona, Othello enters the act personally. It is "you" rather than "he" now, and the vehemence of his emotion is now directed against Cassio.
Third, Othello as second-person interpreter. As the conversation between Iago and Cassio continues, Cassio gives a gesture of embrace to show the way that Bianca, the "bauble," approached him. Rather than just saying "you" now at Cassio, Othello adds words to what he supposes to be Desdemona's embrace of Cassio: "Crying, 'O dear Cassio!' as it were; his gesture imports it (4.1.137-138)." Othello is so caught up in the representation that he must complete the action with words of his own. He has fully identified with the actors, fully submerged himself into the supposed betrayal of his wife. He now has no choice but to seek revenge. "O, I see that nose of yours, but not that dog/ I shall throw it to (4.1.142-143)," and, after Cassio has departed, "How shall I murther him, Iago (4.1.170)?"
Desdemona Sings (4.3)
A completely different emotion engulfs Desdemona in 4.3. She knows that her husband has resolved on a course that she doesn't understand and cannot avert. Her premonition of death pervades the scene. As she asks Emilia to unpin her she recalls a song sung by her mother's maid Barbary. Barbary sang this song because the man to whom she was in love "prov'd mad,/ And did forsake her (4.3.27-28)." So in love was she, and so overwhelmed with sadness, that when she sang the song, "she died singing it (4.3.30)." It expressed Barbary's fate, and for some reason that song came back to haunt Desdemona's memory and she also began to sing it.
The "Willow Song" is a song of disappointed love that depicts the desolate lover sighing under a sycamore tree and weeping as she sings 'willow, willow, willow.' But as Desdemona recites the song, something happens. She says a verse that isn't in the song. It reads:
"Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve" (4.1.52).
Then, she quickly catches herself. "Nay, that's not next (4.1.53)." So fully has she identified with the sadness and sense of bereftness suggested by the song that she adds her own experience to it. It is almost as if the song is the hymnic version of a chain novel, where subsequent "readers" add their own twists to the previous chapters. Here she adds reference to her own experience. Othello has abandoned her, scorned her. She doesn't understand it but she will not blame him for it. Indeed, the theme of not blaming Othello will capture Desdemona's approach to her dying breath ("Commend me to my kind lord"--5.2.125--are her last words). Even more arresting are her words, "his scorn I approve." This is consistent with her earlier words, just after Othello has dumped a barrage of scorn on her, "'Tis meet I should be us'd so, very meet (4.2.107)." The power of music has wriggled into her heart, and she completes the open meaning of the Willow Song with her own interpretation of Othello's conduct.
We find our lives in music; we find ourselves in witnessing the performance of others. We enter into that performance, adding meaning where meaning is only adumbrated. We sing the verses, weeping by the fresh streams with tears that soften the stones, adding our own woes to the troubles of the song. Art not only shows us life but leads us to act on our own life by seeing our life in the artistic representation. It is neither good nor bad; neither moral nor immoral. It is a picture of our lives, painted by others, that we need to enter into and complete. Our lives are not complete until we listen to the art, watch it closely, sing it and lose ourselves, and maybe our lives, in it.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long