Desdemona's Vivid Line
"'Twas passing Strange (3.1.160)"
Othello's story about his adventures in his previous life (or "pre-Venice life--1.3.128-170) is told by Shakespeare with such evident delight and exquisitely powerful use of language that almost every line conjures up a vivid picture of Othello's life odyssey as well as his storytelling skill.
We see the focused intensity of Brabantio, drinking up every word of Othello. We see Desdemona coming into the room, devouring up the morsels that she can before being called away to other duties. We see her returning to him, with her earnest prayer that he "would all" his "pilgrimage dilate" (1.3.153). We see tears dropping from her eyes as she hears his narrative. But, most of all, we see the way that her entrancement with the story leads to her love for Othello. One or two lines are, to me, the most vivid of them all. They have to do with her sighs and words upon hearing the story.
A World of Sighs
She not only wept at his stories as he "often did beguile her of her tears (1.3.156);" but also "She gave me for my pains a world of sighs (1.3.159)." Why does a girl/woman give a world of sighs for the story? Because as he narrates his tale he woos her. She joins him, in her mind, in the "antres vast and deserts idle (1.3.140)." She becomes afraid of the "Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven (1.3.141)." She both shies away but is allured by his tales of men "whose heads/ Do grow beneath their shoulders" and "of the Cannibals that eat each other (1.3.142-144)." All she can do is sigh and realize not simply that the world is much bigger than she has ever experienced, but that she is listening to a man who has been in that world, even been sold into slavery, and lived to tell about it.
But the lines I like the most appear directly after her sighs:
"She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange;/ 'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful (1.3.160-161)."
The poor girl is simply swept off her feet. She cannot put together more than a phrase at a time. His stories are just so out of the ordinary, just so utterly improbable but also utterly convincing that she has no mental categories in which to file them. And then, the are stories are told by a black man, a Moor, a man with an accent whose exoticism combines with his raw sensuality to create a most overpowering sensation for her. All she can do is pant out, "'twas strange, 'twas passing strange; 'twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.'"
An indication that the stories are causing a "division" in her mind that the so-called "divided duty" to her father or Othello (1.3.181) never did, is in the next line, "She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd/ That heaven had made her such a man (1.3.162-163)." In the words of the great German phenomenologist of religion Rudolf Otto, what she was experiencing was the "mysterium tremendum et fascinans," the alluring, terrifying mystery of a power hitherto untouched but claiming one's complete loyalty (Das Heilige; translated into English as The Idea of the Holy). While Otto was referring to something like the temple vision of the prophet in Is. 6, his words are equally relevant to this context in Othello. Desdemona had been overwhelmed by a huge power external to herself, that allured and threatened. It was repulsive ("she wish'd she had not heard it") and very alluring ("she wish'd/ That heaven had made her such a man"). Eventually, she would get this man.
Passing strange. Passing wonderful. As the Apostle Paul might say, "Passing understanding."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long