The Book Report is a reading series that promises to deliver exactly what it promises: reports on books by the people who’ve read them. Tonight, June 11, join hosts Leigh Stein and Sasha Fletcher, with special guests Micaela Blei, Chelsea Hodson, and Ashleigh Lambert, for an evening that will remind you of 3rd grade in the best possible way. 7pm, The Gallery at LPR.
Othello: The Curious Case of Who Fucked Desdemona
by J. Hope Stein
For the past few months, I’ve been engaged in what I’m calling “Twelve Months of Shakespeare.” Starting in January I read all the tragedies. Now I’m reading the comedies and sonnets. And then in the fall and winter I’ll be reading the histories. When I tell this to people, they always ask me, why.
The answer is, as Victor Hugo says-
In Shakespeare the birds sing, the bushes are clothed with green, hearts love, souls suffer, the cloud wanders, it is hot, it is cold, night falls, time passes, forests and multitudes speak, the vast eternal dream hovers over all. Sap and blood, all forms of the multiple reality, actions and ideas, man and humanity, the living and the life, solitudes, cities, religions, diamonds and pearls, dung-hills and charnelhouses, the ebb and flow of beings, the steps of comers and goers, all, all are on Shakespeare and in Shakespeare.
But the truer reason I find myself embarking on “Twelve Months of Shakespeare” is because I started writing a book a few years ago and I couldn’t finish it the way it deserved to be finished and I became convinced that whatever it was that was out of my grasp, if I put myself on a strict diet of Shakespeare, everything would work itself out: language, structure, character arcs, dramatic device. I found myself in a position that reminded me of when I was a kid – all my friends were boys and I wanted to do everything they did and I’d wind up with bloody noses, dislocated shoulders and broken fingers– and I remember thinking how much I loved men’s bodies that I wished my arms and legs were longer and stronger. I felt exactly like this when I was writing this book. I was trying things that were out of my grasp and I felt like Shakespeare was a way to elongate my arms and legs so that I had more at my fingertips.
So I began to dissect his plays. Not academically – I rely solely on Shakespeare’s words and other creative interpretations of the text: lots of stage productions, film productions, ballets, operas and symphonies. Things like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Berryman’s Sonnets. I listen to the audio of the books and work with line imitation. I do whatever I can to demystify the text and break it down to what I perceive to be its building blocks and then try to build it back up. I look for patterns: for instance the word “fear” is used in almost every scene of every act of every tragedy at least once. Another pattern that interested me is the way Shakespeare utilizes scenes that mirror each other in acts I and V. Another tendency is for one character at the end of every tragedy, after everyone is killed, to live on and in a sense be the hero and tell the story (the truth) of what took place. This character is always a man- Never a woman– and that really started to bug me after a while.
Then I try to find my way to the play – write my own version of it. For instance, with Hamlet, I wrote a story of betrayal in which a play within a play is used to catch the culprit. With Romeo and Juliet I wrote a story called Romeo & Juliet for Peace about a girl who starts an internet dating site called “Romeo & Juliet for Peace” which attempts to protest war by matchmaking lover-enemies. Right now I’m trying to make my way to Othello, but it really haunts me in ways I don’t completely understand. So I thought I would use this book report as an opportunity to bring you in on one of my dissections.
Othello isn’t really about Othello. It’s Iago’s play – He’s pretty much the narrator. Iago is also the master-manipulator of every character and sets the plot in motion. But what haunts me is what he uses to manipulate them — Desdemona. More specifically, he plants seeds in the imagination of men about who Desdemona is or isn’t fucking. In that sense it’s really Desdemona’s play. She is the currency of their imaginations. So I went back and took a look at the play, scene by scene, through this lens to see if I could better understand why this play spooks me so.
This is a long way of saying: my book report is on Othello by William Shakespeare.
And it’s called: “The Curious Case of Who Fucked Desdemona.”
Roderigo is pissed off because he wants to fuck Desdemona and he just found out she’s fucking Othello the Moor. Iago hates Othello and so feeds into Roderigo’s fury and encourages him to go to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio and give him this alarming news –his daughter is fucking Othello the Moor.
Iago says to Brabantio –
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.
There’s a lot of racism happening especially in this first act when the news of Othello & Desdemona spreads. Iago continues to inflame Brabantio about Othello fucking his daughter –
Your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs.
Brabantio rallies a posse to confront Othello for fucking his daughter. But simultaneously Othello is summoned to the Duke on business of national import. So they all go to the Duke.
There is major shit going on–There is a threatening Turkish fleet approaching Cypress and Othello is needed at once – But another threat of equal importance needs to be addressed at this emergency meeting of the State – who is fucking Desdemona?
Brabantio explains to the Duke and statesmen that Othello is fucking his daughter- Othello is forced to answer to this charge and explain how Desdemona could possibly want to fuck him out of everyone she can choose from.
I’ll mention this now: This scene is mirrored in the final act of the play and is part of the key to why this play haunts me so much. There is a moment where Othello is defending himself and asks that Desdemona be brought in to corroborate his story- he is, for all purposes, on trail in this moment and requests to have a witness speak on his behalf. And she does.
The scene ends with Brabantio saying this to Othello:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
Which is a classy way of saying: welcome to the hellish imaginations of worrying about who is fucking Desdemona.
Iago, his wife Emilia, Cassio, Othello and Desdemona are all in Cyprus. The Turkish fleet is no longer a threat. Iago sees that Cassio and Desdemona are chummy so he decides to create suspicions around their relationship. He starts by telling Roderigo (who wants to fuck Desdemona and is still upset that she is fucking Othello) that Cassio is the one she wants to fuck now.
This is all part of Iago’s plan to make Othello jealous and get Othello and Cassio out of the way for some sort of job upward mobility – plus one always gets the feeling Iago just enjoys manipulation for sport.
Iago gets Cassio drunk, knowing he can’t handle his liquor. Cassio gets into a fight and his job is now in jeopardy. Cassio is distraught and Iago advises him to use his friendship with Desdemona to help convince Othello that he should keep his job. This lays the groundwork for Othello to misinterpret Desdemona’s affections for Cassio and jump to the conclusion that because she is interested in his job security she is fucking him.
Iago’s plan is working: Desdemona and Cassio meet (i.e. they will be confused for fucking).
Othello catches a glimpse of Cassio and Desdemona talking, as Iago planned. Then Iago really lays it on Othello— plants the seed in Othello’s mind that Desdemona is fucking Cassio.
Othello is transformed by the end of the scene. He says:
I am abused and my relief
I must loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others’ uses.
Iago’s wife Emilia, who serves on Desdemona, finds Desdemona’s handkerchief and gives it to Iago because he had been asking her for it and she just wants to please him (not realizing the full destruction of the gesture).
Othello is a total dick to Desdemona because he thinks she’s fucking Cassio. He’s aggressive towards her about not having the handkerchief he gave her, which belonged to his mother.
Turns out: Cassio finds the handkerchief in his chamber (placed by Iago) and he gives it to his prostitute girlfriend Bianca. The handkerchief becomes a symbol of Desdemona’s sexual gift. Which is now in the hands of a prostitute.
Iago tells Othello that Cassio has the handkerchief. He says he saw him stroke his beard with it. He starts teasing images in Othello’s mind that make him think of Desdemona fucking Cassio which makes him go mad and pass out in an epileptic fit.
Othello questions Emilia, about the details of Desdemona’s lurid fucking spree. Emilia tells him he’s out of his tits and that Desdemona hasn’t done shit. Othello replies, “This is a subtle whore.” Then dismisses Emilia and says, “ Leave procreants alone and shut the door.”
Meanwhile, Roderigo is pissed at Iago because he wants to fuck Desdemona and has been giving Iago all kinds of payment for supposedly passing along love trinkets to Desdemona, but hasn’t gotten anything in return— Iago tells Roderigo that if he murders Cassio, he’ll be fucking Desdemona in a less than a fortnight.
This is an intimate talk between Emilia and Desdemona about the dynamic of husbands and wives. Desdemona tells Emilia she can’t even imagine a world in which a woman would fuck anyone but her husband. And Emilia’s like – it’s a big world, girl!
This is a really beautiful scene. I paused here and wanted to dwell in this scene. It was momentary relief from this testosterone booby-trap of a play. I felt myself transforming— I, who have always been more drawn to men as my friends, who have always identified with male characters, just wanted to hide in this scene with these two women and just be like, “Hi I’m a woman too.”
Roderigo attacks Cassio because he thinks he’s fucking Desdemona.
Othello, heading off to his bed to murder Desdemona (for fucking Cassio) says:
Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted.
Desdemona is in bed sleeping/waiting for Othello. He shows up and starts with his whole treat-her-like-a-whore routine—calls her “strumpet” and instructs her to “think on thy sins” because he intends to murder her.
And this is a really important moment for me – this is the scene that mirrors the scene in the first act when Othello was essentially on trial before the Duke and he asked that Desdemona be called in to corroborate his story. And they allowed it and she did.
But here when Othello tells Desdemona she will die for fucking Cassio and giving him her handkerchief –she says just bring Cassio in and ask him – but Othello thinks Cassio is already murdered under his orders. He essentially denies her the right that was afforded to him in act I. Something about the mirroring of these 2 scenes brings to light a truth that I have a hard time articulating. Othello strangles Desdemona to death in their bed and she dies with no way to defend herself. And my love relationship to the power of men’s bodies kind of turned inside out and died a little too.
Emilia comes in and sees Desdemona was murdered and Othello is all – she deserved it, she was fucking Cassio…. But Emilia told him everything, that she gave Iago the handkerchief and that Iago is a liar. Iago stabs her – so we have 2 men killing their wives within pages of each other. (And good wives.) As Emilia is dying— She says, “lay me by my mistress’s side” and then sings by Desdemona’s side until they are both dead. This image brings to mind the deathbed of Romeo and Juliet—This is a tale of woe brought on two women by testosterone.
As for the mystery of who fucked Desdemona – according to my calculations, nobody— She died a virgin. Othello realizes this and kills himself while pressing his lips to hers—
I am only 5 months into my 12 months of Shakespeare and it’s all going according to plan: I finished the book I was writing and I’ve generated lots of new material. But something unexpected happened in the process. Before I started my 12 months of Shakespeare, my female character died in the 3rd quarter of the book. But I’ve made an adjustment that I think really saves the book. Everyone else dies. And she is the character at the end who lives on to tell their story.