"Shakespeare's Desdemona" Critic: S. N. Garner Source: Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 233-52. Criticism about: Othello
[(essay date 1976) In the following essay, Garner stresses the importance and complexity of Desdemona's role in Othello, and asserts that Shakespeare endowed her with a full range of human emotions.]
As Desdemona prepares to go to bed with Othello in Act IV, scene iii of Shakespeare's Othello, the following conversation occurs between her and Emilia:
Shall I go fetch your nightgown?
No, unpin me here.
This Lodovico is a proper man.
A very handsome man.
He speaks well.
I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.
Surely this is startling dialogue coming as it does between the brothel scene and the moment when Desdemona will go to her wedding with death. An actress or director would certainly have to think a great deal about how these lines are to be spoken and what they are to reveal of Desdemona's character. But a reader or critic is not so hard pressed, and he may, if it suits him, simply skip over them. This is precisely what most critics do.
Robert Heilman is representative. In his lengthy book on the play, Magic in the Web,2 he does not discuss the passage. One reason for this omission, of course, is that he, like most critics, is mainly interested in Othello and Iago. Nevertheless, since he uses the New Critics' method of close reading--underscoring images, habits of diction, and grammatical structure--it is peculiar that when he treats Desdemona's character, dealing in two instances with Act IV, scene iii specifically (pp. 189-90, 208-10), he fails to notice these lines. A partial explanation for this failure is that he sustains his interpretation of Othello and Iago and the theme of the play by insisting on Desdemona's relative simplicity and diverges from other critics who make her
"overintricate" (p. 209). More significantly, however, the passage is difficult to square with his contention that in the last act Desdemona "becomes ... the saint" (p. 215), a representation of "the world of spirit" (p. 218).
Other critics whose method, if nothing else, will scarcely allow them to ignore the passage cancel it out as best they can. G. R. Elliott, for example, in his line-by-line commentary, Flaming Minister, remarks that here Desdemona "speaks listlessly [italics mine]; and she pays no heed to the vivid tale begun by her woman of the Venetian lady. ... She herself would make a hard pilgrimage for a 'touch' of Othello's love."3 In other words, she does not mean what she says about Lodovico, her mind is really on Othello, and when Emilia talks about touching Lodovico's "nether lip," Desdemona must, Elliott implies, think of Othello. Similarly, M. R. Ridley, editor of the Arden edition, is evidently bothered by the lines and can only hope they somehow do not belong to Desdemona: "What did Shakespeare intend by this...