Othello's Love II
When Language is Too Much (2.1)
The action of the play shifts from Venice to Cyprus in Act II as Othello is commissioned to Cyprus to ward off the Turkish threat. The fact that the Turkish fleet is destroyed by storm even before Othello lands in Cyprus is a sign that the external danger has passed; now the play will begin to focus on the internal perils to the lead characters. My focus here will be on the words Othello uses when he speaks to Desdemona for the first time after weathering the storm that destroyed the Turkish fleet. My approach is that Othello is a little "too eager" in his words, and that therefore he might be trying to hide a slight tinge of guilt or awkwardness: the guilt at being the only soldier to have his wife with him and the awkwardness of his minority status and his stereotype as "lascivious Moor (1.1.126)."
His first words to Desdemona after a one-line greeting are words of wonder and contentment:
"It gives me wonder great as my content/ To see you here before me. O my soul's joy!..../ If it were now to die,/ 'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear/ My soul hath her content so absolute/ That not another comfort like to this/ Succeeds in unknown fate (2.1.183-193)."
Again, a few lines later, he says,
"I cannot speak enough of this content,/ It stops me here; it is too much of joy (2.1.196-197)."
Contentment, joy, comfort are the words that come from his lips. Who could gainsay that?
Thinking about Expressions of Love
But isn't it just a bit over the top? If most people had just landed on shore, having escaped the clutches of the terrible storm that destroyed the Turks, would contentment, joy and comfort be their natural first reaction? Probably not. Most would probably fall to their knees in gratitude that they were alive, or express relief, or run and hug Desdemona and say, "I thought I was going to die," or "I never thought I would see you alive again." "I am so terribly, terribly grateful." That is, gratitude and relief, rather than contentment and joy, are the right emotions.
But has Shakespeare "erred?" Not only your life. A helpful contemporary reflection on love of a husband for his wife is Edmund Morris' retrospective on Ronald Reagan's life in the June 28, 2004 edition of The New Yorker. He speaks about the "way Reagan advertised his uxoriousness" that is illuminating in this context. morris said that "the fulsome toasts and tributes, the hand-holding, the on-camera kisses" always struck him as excessive. Morris says,
"There was something guilty about his superimposition of an enormous valentine card, all ribbons and bluebirds, over the stark back-and-white of his divorce decree from Jane Wyman. Possibly he was embarrassed by the many similarities between his two wives.... (p.47)."
In other words, Morris argues that an excessive display of love can be covering something up as well as revealing one's love. For Reagan, he surmises it is to cover up some residual guilt from his first marriage.
This analysis is helpful in considering what I call Othello's "over the top" greeting of his wife. Perhaps we best understand the greeting as an expression of something Othello is trying to hide than to reveal. And, what would that be? Again, it would be the subtle embarrassment that many minorities feel about themselves, their culture, their awkwardness in the majority culture, their lack of "fit" even when they want to fit so seemlessl into that culture. Thus, Othello is trying to show love in a way that will help him "fit" in the Venetian culture which he only dimly understands. There might also be an element of guilt, too, guilt that he should have his wife with him when the life of the soldier was to go without wife, guilt that this will cause rumors to fly about his sexuality and animalistic "need" for his wife when the other men can endure the separation.
Thus, what some might take as just another example of Shakespeare's eloquence and powerful use of language, language that can be memorized and recited to a sweetheart at an appropriate time, I see as his penetrating insight into the continuing and never-ending dilemma of Othello's minority status. Things that are too good to be true, and which bring too much joy (as this reunion apparently does--2.1.197), maybe simply are that--too good to be true.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long