Creation's Essential Vesture
We have already seen that the three lead characters of Othello, Iago, Othello and Desdemona, have different approaches to love. Iago has a pornographic view, which reduces love to the the excitement and guilt of sexual contact. Desdemona loved Othello because she saw his visage in his mind, i.e., she perceived his essential self and consecrated herself to his honors and valiant parts. Othello loves Desdemona because she fell in love with his stories; his love was derivative but no less real.
Here, at the outset of Act II, we have another character (Cassio) who doesn't discourse on love expressly but describes Desdemona in language that shows his commitment to a romantic view of a woman, of women as pure and pristine expressions of creation, who are to be honored, nobly kissed, and placed on a pedestal of high regard.
Cassio on Desdemona
His lines are his first comments on Desdemona. Quoting from a slightly larger context, they are:
"he (Othello) hath achieve'd a maid/ That paragons description and wild fame;/ One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,/ And in th' essential vesture of creation/ Does tire the ingener (2.1.61-65)."
Most commentators take the last two lines to be in apposition to the first three. That is, they interpret "And in th' essential vesture of creation/ Does tire the ingener," to be a romantic description of Desdemona's beauty supporting the preceding line ("One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens"). Thus the sense of the passage would be that Desdemona is one who, in her essential beauty and nature, is so striking and astonishing that even the poets tire of reciting her beauties. She even exceeds their capacity to describe her.
This is the interpretation of the words adopted by the Riverside Shakespeare and most editions of the play. And, it is a good and supportable construal of the language. It would fit Cassio's more romantic nature, which we also see in his conversation with Iago in 2.3.12-32, where Cassio refuses to be brought into the sexual discussion about Desdemona that Iago initiates.
A Biblical Reading
Yet, an even stronger reading can supplement the preceding interpretation. Rather than seeing "tire" in the last line as equivalent to "weary," why not read it as a short form of "attire," or to "dress," and then read the two lines as suggesting that Desdemona wears a clothing or vesture provided by creation? The sense of the last two lines would then be, 'And in the basic or fundamental or vital constitutent garment of creation [her human nature], God [the ingener--the maker or poet or engineer] attired or clothed her.' But by calling it the "essential vesture" of creation, Shakespeare may also be hinting not just that Desdemona bears a like human nature to every woman but that it is a sort of fundamental nature, a nature so connected to creation itself that she is the exemplary nature of creation. An interpretation like this is suggested by Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare's Plays, 585-586.
Such an interpretation arises from a reading of Psalm 102.
"the heavens are the work of thy hands./ They will perish, but thou dost endure; they will all wear out like a garment. Thou changest them like raiment, and they pass away (Ps. 102:25-26)."
Thus, Shakespeare would have been aware through hearing the vivid language of the Psalmist, that the heavens are likened to a garment which will be changed by God when they "wear out."
The purpose of the Psalmist's reference to the heavens as garment is to stress the contrast between the transience of creation and the permanence of God (Ps. 102:27)." However, Shakespere's Cassio is just trying to describe the wondrous beauty before him. By anchoring her description in biblical language, Shakespeare as it were calls up the biblical cadences to the hearers' ears and makes them think that Desdemona is as grand, as dramatic and as breathtakingly beautiful as the heavens themselves.
This is an example of Dr. Bill Long's interpretive method. When in doubt, choose both interpretations. Let the text explode with meaning.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long