Loving Her for Pitying Him (1.3.168)
If Desdemona's love for Othello was a submissive love, generated by seeing his visage in his mind and fueled by her delight in his honors and valiant parts, Othello's love towards Desdemona is rather different. Though he will later speak of his sense of contentment to be united with her after a perilous trip to Cyprus with such rapturous words as "it is too much of joy (2.1.197), he is content not because he feels she is his "soulmate;" rather, he loved her because she fell in love with him through his stories.
Love and Storytelling
I have already briefly considered Othello's remarkable story of his life, "the battles, sieges, fortunes (1.3.130)" that he had experienced. The delectation in Othello's stories was, in the first instance, Brabantio's but soon became Desdemona's delight, also. They were rapt as he wrapped them in his narrative. Desdemona was overcome by the stories: "She thank'd me,/ And bade me,/ if I had a friend that lov'd her,/ I should but teach him how to tell my story/ And that would woo her (1.3.163-166)." Desdemona's not so subtle hint told him that his stories had made a deep impression on her. He continued to tell his stories, and his conclusion was "she lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd (1.3.167)." This is only partially right, as Desdemona's later statements indicate (1.3.250-253), but it is on the right track. What is interesting, however, is the following line: "And I lov'd her that she did pity them [his dangers--1.3.168]."
The Quality of Othello's Love
So they loved each other for different reasons. This is something inviting reflection. So much emphasis in our day is placed upon "mutuality" or "egalitarianism" (though that word tended to rise and fall in the 1970s and 1980s) that couples might get the impression that love is about loving in the same way and for the same reason. But Othello's love for her says nothing about his perception of her as a woman, his appreciation of her finer qualities, his sense that he even understands anything of her past or her present. His love for her seems derivative, secondary, like a comdian's loving the crowd because it laughs at his jokes.
But there is something profoundly realistic about the way that Shakespeare has shaped his portrait of the mutual loves of Desdemona and Othello. In the June 28, 2004 New Yorker, Reagan biographer Edmund Morris speaks of the love that Nancy and Ronald Reagan had for each other. His description of course shows no indebtedness to Shakespeare's description in Othello, but it could have. Listen to his description of the President's love for Nancy:
"There is no doubt that she loved him for better and for worse, as her care of him in his last years has shown. Neither was there any equivocation in his love for her, as far as it went. But my impression is that it stopped at the frontier of his own interest (p. 48, italics added).
What Morris means by this statement is illustrated by Nancy Reagan's 2000 volume of love letters, "I Love You, Ronnie." In the letters of Ron to Nancy what was most striking to Morris were the lack of a single perceptive remark about her by the President. Indeed, in his personal diaries, the President would often refer to her, but it was "expressed almost entirely in terms of personal need." It never occurred to the President that she might be "lonely, too, or bereaved or frightened, that she has any identity other than--by extension--his own (Ibid.)."
As it was with Ron and Nancy, so it was with Othello and Desdemona. She fell in love with his visage in his mind, and he loved her because she loved his stories. When this happens (and who can doubt that it is true love?), the man has to keep telling stories and keep living adventures, and the woman must keep loving, enthralled by his visage in his mind, but delighting in every one of his valiant parts. Does this make love unequal? Of course. Is it any less love? Of course not. Is Shakespeare closer to describing the nature of most couples' true love than the jargon of today? Of course.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long