Loving Desdemona for Her Mind (1.3.265). Really??
When the Venetial Senate commissions Othello to Cyprus to fight the Turks, the Duke speaks for the Senate and, in a nutshell, says that state business must trump his personal pleasure at a time like this. "You must therefore be content to/ slubber the gloss of your new fortunes with this more/ stubborn and boist'rous expedition (1.3.226-228)." Will this cause a problem for Othello?
Othello the Eager General
Not at all. Othello is ever the willing soldier: "The tyrant custom, most grave senators,/ Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war/ My thrice-driven bed of down. His bed is a "bed of nails" but he likes it that way. The Biblical God might make the rough places plain and exalt every valley (Is. 40), but Shakespeare's Othello makes the steely place soft. The war's hardness appeals to him. As he says in another context: "For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith,/ Till now some nine moons wasted, they have us'd/ Their dearest action in the tented field (1.3.83-85)." It is almost as if the time spent in Venice, the time spent wooing Desdemona, is time "wasted" because it is not in the theater of war.
Desdemona Wants Along
Othello may be eager to get back to war, and even would find a place for Desdemona to stay behind, but she wants to accompany him. She "did love the Moor to live with him (1.3.248)," she says. She fell in love with his "honors and his valiant parts (1.3.253)," and if she doesn't join him she will bear a "heavy interim" during his "dear absence (1.3.258-259)."
Her request puts Othello in a bind. If he denies his wife's desire, he would seemingly be saying he does not want to be with her, but if he affirms it, it might look to the Senate like he was going to Cyprus with divided loyalties. What does he do? Like the ever-faithful Uriah the Hittite, whom King David called home from the field of battle to sleep with his wife Bathsheba (whom David had just impregnated), and who decided actually not to sleep with his wife because of the perceived inequity between his pleasure with his wife and his companions hardship in the field (II Sam 11), so Othello also renounces the pleasures of marriage even while his wife will accompany him. He says,
"I therefore beg it not [i.e., her coming with me]/ To please the palate of my appetite,/ Nor to comply with heat (the young affects/ In me defunct) and proper satisfaction;/ But to be free and bounteous to her mind (1.3.261-265)."
Bounteous to Her Mind?
What is Othello thinking? In my judgment he is responding this way because of the precariousness he faces not simply as a general who wants to appear "just" before his troops but as a member of a minority group whose sexual prowess is an easy target of speculation and criticism (as it was for Iago in 1.1). That is, Othello's overly chaste response is a sort of preemptive strike against those who might use this "privilege" as a means of discrediting him.
He really says much more than he needs to say. Over and over again he swears his chastity. He will not "your [i.e., the Senate's] serious and great business scant;" nor will Cupid's "light-wing'd toys" blind "with wanton dullness" Othello's speculative capacities (1.3.267-270)." Then, he concludes by calling down a curse of sorts upon himself. If he engages in pleasure, "Let housewives make a skillet of my helm (1.3.272)." Perhaps it is not an oversight of Shakespeare to have Desdemona say no more words in the rest of the scene. She got what she wanted--to be with her husband. Perhaps she thinks that the men can interpret all they want. Since, as the play goes on, we see Othello as so "enfetter'd" to her love that she could get him to "renounce his baptism" if she desired (2.3.343-345), she is not disappointed. But Othello is hyper-reserved because of his precarious position, as good general but, primarily, as suspect minority.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long