Obsessed with the affinities between sex and death, the Renaissance called orgasm "the little death," and Shakespeare's most famous couples enact this metaphor literally. Erotic love, too great to be accommodated by the small-minded day-to-day world, becomes the tragic trajectory to death. Romeo and Juliet die after one night of passionate lovemaking. Each commits suicide, thinking the other dead. Their mutual death seems almost inevitable, anti-climactic, a lover's sleep. Not wanting to live after Antony's death, Cleopatra, speaking of "immortal longings," kills herself with an asp's kiss at her breast, ecstatically calling "Husband, I come!" These two seem to have spent their entire love affair at a fever pitch of sublime passion; their deaths are an exultant climax to it.
What is striking about these two scenarios is their perfect symmetry and confluence. While the lovers are deeply at odds with the world around them, they remain in harmony with each other. But Othello and Desdemona are divided in the course of the play, a casualty of lago's plan to revenge Cassio's promotion. "O, you are well-tuned now! But I'll set down the pegs that make this music,/As honest as I am," lago vows, observing the lovers' blissful exchanges.
Like these other lovers, Othello dies upon a kiss, but he dedicates his suicide to the woman he has just murdered. His last words poignantly convolute the Renaissance theme of love and death: I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this,/Killing myself, to die upon a kiss." That Othello suffocates Desdemona where and when he would normally be making love to her renders this Renaissance metaphor literal with devastating irony. The story of Desdemona and Othello's love is perhaps even more' cruel and disturbing in that the hand of one of the lovers is twisted to become the agent of the other's death. No uncontrollable fate is invoked to account for the course of events, no yearning for mutual transcendence motivates it, and so no poetic justice justifies it.
Othello is a tragedy of broken love: more real, more resounding because it is stripped of the archetypal patterning of its more mythical cousins Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. Its true tragedy might not lie so much in the lovers' deaths as in the near-death of their love. As lago manipulates Othello into disillusionment with Desdemona, the audience is forced to watch the almost unbearable agonies of both lovers which lead to the edge of despair.
The simple polar oppositions of Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra are multiplied and unsettled in Othello. Instead of Romeo and Juliet's rival family houses, or Antony and Cleopatra's warring nations, the initial obstacle to Othello and Desdemona's love is the taboo of interracial marriage, primarily expressed by her father. The situation is further complicated by a difference in age. Othello is an older man "declined into the vale of years"; Desdemona is young, at the peak of hers. So while Romeo and Juliet's green barely budded love prefigures Antony and Cleopatra's sublime maturity, Othello and Desdemona span both worlds, bridging differences in age as well as race.
The authenticity this lends their love is well established at the play's opening, when their relationship is subjected to public scrutiny and debate. Here the two lovers openly defend their love, and their words are so powerful that their marriage is unequivocally recognized by all, notwithstanding a begrudging father. This is a fitting testimony to a love that was inspired by the sensuality of language and the understanding that dialogue allows. There,. is a thoughtful quality to this love that again contrasts with Romeo and Juliet's classic love-at-first-sight, or Antony and Cleopatra's fervent, insatiable desire.
Desdemona is first drawn to Othello in response to the stories he tells of his life. "She loved me for the dangers I had passed," Othello asserts, insisting that she be called to speak for herself, trusting her voice absolutely. "I saw Othello's visage in his mind," she clearly announces, shaming her father's racially prejudiced rationale. In forthrightly insisting that she accompany Othello on his military expedition to Cyprus, she roots their love firmly in the real world. She claims the rights to her sexual relationship with Othello, refusing to subordinate it to his public responsibilities: "That I did love the Moor to live with him,/ My downright violence and storm of fortunes/May trumpet to the world." Othello describes his interest in having Desdemona accompany him to Cyprus as motivated not by lust, but by the desire to be free and bounteous to her mind."
With the false alarm of social censorship happily dispelled, the lov-ers seem to have scaled the walls that
overwhelmed so many other star-crossed pairings. But this illusion of reas-surance only deepens the betrayal to come. Othello's words, upon reunion with Desdemona after a dangerous sea voyage to Cyprus, express euphoria (playing again on the conceit of the little death). But at the same time, his images of death foreshadow the impen-ding tragedy: "If after every tempest come such calms,/May the winds blow till they have wak-ened death! ... If it were now to die,/Twere now to be most happy."
In the course of the play, Othello, betrayed by lago, moves from certainty to doubt. Desdemona, betrayed by Othello, remains unwaveringly true to the love she defended from the beginning, guarding it from total annihilation. Othello and Desdemona's love is nowhere more strongly expressed. than in her sparse, final words, spoken from the grave, in response to the question of who has killed her: "Nobody; I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord." Why does she deny Othello's guilt? Perhaps because the fracturing of their love is a truth too terrible to speak. Perhaps because her forgiveness allows its final triumph. More than any other Shakespearean tragedy, Othello raises the possibility of love's triumph emerging from its defeat, its communion from its solitude, and its transcendence from its desecration.
Liza Henderson, De Barbieri Dramaturgical Fellow