Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act IV (Marriage and Politics)

Early in the book of Genesis we read “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”  In Act I of Othello Desdemona leaves her father and cleaves to Othello as her husband.  A similar situation happens in Act I of King Lear (GB5).  King Lear asks Cordelia for a public declaration of her love for him.  She replies “I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less.”  What Cordelia is saying is that she loves Lear as a daughter should love her father.  Some day she will have to share her allegiance and “cleave unto” a husband: “Good my lord, you have begot me, bred me, loved me: I return those duties back as are right fit, obey you, love you, and most honour you. Why have my sisters husbands, if they say they love you all? Haply, when I shall wed, that lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry half my love with him, half my care and duty: sure, I shall never marry like my sisters, to love my father all.”  So it is in Othello.  When Desdemona leaves her father she’s following a plan long established by Genesis in the religious tradition of Western civilization. 

The secular tradition of Western civilization also views marriage as the basic plan of society.  Families are the fundamental building blocks for the whole political structure.  Aristotle (Politics GB2) says “In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue… Out of these two relationships between man and woman, master and slave, the first thing to arise is the family…”  Master and slave?  This political dynamic within the marital relationship has been the cause of much grief between many husbands and wives.  Love is fine but who gets to make the final decisions?  That’s the question the Wife of Bath asks in The Canterbury Tales (GB3) and here’s her conclusion “If there were no authority on earth except experience, mine, for what it’s worth, (and that’s enough for me) all goes to show that marriage is a misery and a woe.”  She had gone through five husbands and every marriage had been a battle for supremacy.  But in spite of her own bad experience she would still welcome the opportunity to have a go at a sixth marriage.

How does Shakespeare handle this perennial human predicament of the battle of the sexes?  In Act IV of Othello Desdemona and Emilia ponder the pros and cons of marriage.  Specifically, Desdemona wonders how wives could ever be unfaithful: “O these men, these men! Dost thou in conscience think, tell me, Emilia, that there be women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind?” Emilia assures her that there are such women.  Then Desdemona asks “wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?”  Emilia’s response is interesting.  She says “the world is a huge thing; ‘tis a great price for a small vice.”  What Emilia calls “a small vice” has sent Othello into a murderous rage.  Iago has thoroughly convinced him that Desdemona has been unfaithful.  Desdemona is as good and as innocent as Cordelia was in King Lear.  Emilia is more like the Wife of Bath when she says “Let husbands know their wives have sense like them: they see and smell and have their palates both for sweet and sour, as husbands have. What is it that they do when they change us for others? Is it sport? I think it is: and doth affection breed it? I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs? It is so too: and have not we affections, desires for sport, and frailty, as men have? Then let them use us well: else let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”  For Emilia men and women aren’t very different.  So both she and the Wife of Bath use feminine power to counter masculine power.  Although there’s no evidence either of them were unfaithful, they let it be known they can give as good as they get.  Desdemona and Cordelia take a softer, gentler approach.  They never threaten to retaliate and prefer building trust for mutual conflict resolution.  In that sense marriage is like politics on a much smaller scale.                


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