TW: emotional abuse, physical abuse, and murder
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and a growing awareness of domestic violence issues, it makes sense for recent production of Othello to highlight the abuse Desdemona endures. It makes sense because of our current societal discourse and because Othello provides a great look into what abuse looks like and how it can escalate. As Matthew Shepherd put it in his 2016 article, “Othello’s abuse of Desdemona matches the Commission’s [Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence] description of family violence as a multifaceted pattern of escalating behaviour rather than a single event.” Othello starts with emotional abuse before moving to physical abuse that culminates in killing his partner, Desdemona. Beyond that though, we see the accurate representation of an abuse victim in Desdemona. She blames herself, believes she can fix the situation, and is always on eggshells. Having accurate portrayals of abuse forces the audience to confront the reality of domestic violence, furthering the conversation and, hopefully, advocacy.
Let’s begin with a closer look at the abuser, Othello. Despite the fact that the research on patterns of abuse weren’t conducted until long after Shakespeare died, he still managed to accurately illustrate the escalation of abuse typically seen in these situations. At first, the marriage seems picture perfect (National Domestic Violence Hotline). They love each other completely, have no disagreements, and refuse to be separated. This is not unusual in abusive situations. Abusive relationships typically start out blissfully and that is why abuse victims often feel a sense of commitment to the relationship. It is the reason Desdemona takes the blame and hopes to fix their problems. She hopes for the relationship they had before.
However, the abuse has to start somewhere and that is typically with emotional abuse and/or threats. Othello pretty quickly becomes convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful and starts demeaning her publicly. It starts subtly, with hints that she needs to repent for something, “This hand of yours requires/ A sequester from liberty, fasting, and prayer,/ Much castigation, exercise devout;/ For here’s a young and sweating devil here,/ That commonly rebels.” (A3.S4) Then, he moves on to harsher words, calling her a whore and all it’s synonyms. However, he does not tell her what she did wrong. This keeps her constantly on eggshells, another sign of abuse. (HelpGuide.org) Because she doesn’t know why he’s mad, she can’t possibly figure out what will set him off next.
It isn’t long before the abuse follows a too familiar pattern by escalating “from threats and verbal assault to violence.” (HelpGuide.org) He strikes Desdemona across her face in front of a crowd of people. This is the last time we see Desdemona stand up to Othello before the final scene. Immediately after he slaps her, she says “I have not deserved this.” (A4.S1) After this, she remains an obedient wife until he comes to kill her. This moment in the play represents a turning point in the abuse. Othello goes from threats to physical violence, and he does it in front of others, including the audience. This moment can be one of realization for the audience, as seen in the 2016 production at Vanderbilt University. One blogger said “the sound of the actual slap pierced my ears and forced my mind to remember the scene long after the play. For me, many of the violent scenes were finally brought into reality at the performance.” (Vandy Performs)
Finally, we reach the conclusion of the play and the abuse. Othello enters Desdemon’a bedroom with the intention to kill her and does so in a violent and deeply personal way. Desdemona attempts to defend herself, escape, and beg for her life. It doesn’t matter though because she has already been accused of adultery; she is already “named a whore” and “under that judgement, she falls victim to lethal intimate partner violence as Othello becomes judge, jury, and executioner.” (Gilmore) In Othello’s mind, this is justified because of her crimes. It’s not until he realizes he was wrong that he shows any sort of remorse. Even then, he feels that, had she been guilty, he would have been justified. Desdemona’s death can be played in an ultra-realistic way, so as to provide the audience with a glimpse of true violence. This was the direction chosen for the 2016 Bell Shakespeare production. The actor playing Othello, Ray Chong Nee, was quoted as saying “We all agreed that her death shouldn’t be softened. It should be violent and hard to watch.” (Blake) Pushing the boundaries and making audiences uncomfortable can make it more impactful. Audiences walk away with an idea of what domestic violence really looks like. They walk away with a deeper understanding.
Theater, as a visual art, has the unique ability to make audiences face realities they may never face. Talking about domestic violence, reading or writing articles, creating awareness months can only go so far, many need to experience a situation in a visceral way. Theatre allows us to do that. “Solely reading about domestic violence may not enrage readers to the point of actually mobilizing for change,” but Othello can “force the reality of the situation upon the audience – ultimately bringing these articles to life.” (Vandy Performs) Shakespeare, by capturing something innately human, allows us to adapt his writing in ways that make it relevant to our world today. Shakespeare can and does spark conversation about modern issues, and that is what makes his writing so special.
What do you think? Has a production of Othello impacted you? If so, how? Sound off in the comments!
Blake, Elissa. “Killing Desdemona: the domestic violence in Othello.” The Sydney Morning Herald. October 24, 2016. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/killing-desdemona-the-domestic-violence-in-othello-20161024-gs98kg.html
Gilmore, Leigh. “Amid a Reckoning with Toxic Masculinity, Seeing ‘Othello’ In A New Light.” WBUR. February 8, 2019. https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/02/08/art-othello-in-the-me-too-era-leigh-gilmore
HelpGuide.org. “Domestic Violence and Abuse.” 2019. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/abuse/domestic-violence-and-abuse.htm
National Domestic Violence Hotline. “Abuse Defined.” 2020. https://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/abuse-defined/
Vandy Performs. “Othello and Domestic Violence.” Vanderbilt University. October 10 2016. https://my.vanderbilt.edu/vandyperforms/2016/10/othello-and-domestic-violence/