We all know Desdemona
Jennifer Vosters | Wednesday, April 13, 2016
I recently saw “Othello” for the first time at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It was a great production with strong performances and an astounding set. The play itself, of course, is a masterpiece. It’s before-its-time handling of race relations is more pertinent than ever (Othello is a black man in decidedly-white Venice). But it was the terrible demise of his wife Desdemona that affected me most deeply.
To summarize, a soldier named Iago feels slighted by his general, Othello, and seeks revenge by convincing him that Desdemona is unfaithful. Driven to a rage, Othello kills her and then, realizing he’s been tricked, kills himself.
Though the questions of racial injustice are piercingly vivid, particularly in a modern context: It was the horror of domestic violence, intimate partner violence and violence against women that made this production such a viciously contemporary monster. And as much as Othello himself is a victim of unspeakable cruelty on account of many things, including his skin color, the questions of gender were just as searing in a society where women of all races were collateral damage. The results are undeniable. At the end of the play, two women have been killed by their husbands. Desdemona is strangled in her bed.
I knew Desdemona. Her name was Jessie Blodgett. We met in high school and shared similar interests, drama and music in particular. In July 2013, Jessie was killed when an ex-boyfriend stole into her home and strangled her in her bed. She was nineteen years old.
Many of you have known Desdemona, maybe more than one. We’ve all seen her on the news, read about her online. She is shot to death in Milwaukee. Burned alive in India. Stabbed in England. She is all races and all ages. She is what we — women — fear most to become. How can we avoid her?
Shakespeare gives us no answer. The sense of inevitability in Desdemona’s death is palpable in “Othello.” Everyone knows she will die. Othello. Iago. Emilia. The audience. Desdemona herself. No one can, or no one will, intervene for her. No good Samaritan. No Green Dot. From the minute Iago names her as an instrument of his revenge, she is a dead woman. And though she and Emilia come to sense it, there is nothing they can do to stop the onslaught of fury and false betrayal that Iago unleashes in Othello.
Desdemona is the victim of a social structure that reduces women to objects, men to animals and people of color to pawns. She is the holocaust sacrificed on the altar of male entitlement (Iago feels entitled to a position of power and punishes Othello for not giving it to him) and fragility (Othello is so “dishonored” by her invented infidelity that he must kill her to restore his own self-esteem). Everyone suffers — all races, all genders — but who suffers the most? Who is dead on the bed at the play’s end? A black man and two women.
Desdemona is a statistic. And in watching her death story unfold, we realize the domestic violence that kills her takes root in the torment Iago inflicts on Othello. This does not excuse Othello. But it provides a concentrated glimpse into the forces at work behind a violent, imbalanced, unfair system that results in murdered women, often dead at the hands of people they know. And a crushingly pessimistic takeaway is that these forces are too subtle, too engrained, too consciously-driven to be stopped. We know there will be more Desdemonas. And like a paralyzed, complicit audience, we will do nothing.
Am I wrong? I hope so. People like Jessie’s parents make me think I might be. They’ve established the Love is Greater than Hate Project to combat violence against women and encourage men to pledge never to be complicit in violence against a woman, girl or child. They’ve drawn inspiration from their daughter — who herself was an advocate against gender violence – and made meaning out of meaningless destruction. They’ve reclaimed the narrative.
But as long as we believe that this is “just the way it is,” as long as we think we are an audience in the world rather than actors, we have not just accepted the inevitability of Desdemona’s death, but ensured it.
It does not have to be this way. No universal playwright is writing violence, murder and rape into our society. No usher is forcing us to remain in our seats. The sooner we realize our own agency, the sooner we can restore Desdemona’s. It starts with four words: “This is not right.”
Do not acknowledge violence as normal. Don’t joke about it. Don’t ignore it. Be outraged. Be angry. Be scared.
And then be brave.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.