I Am Not Merry, But I Do Beguile

These are Desdemona’s words in Act II – and indeed, they do beguile.  They arise in a dialogue between her and Iago that I didn’t fully understand at first, but which intrigued me nonetheless.

We often say that what makes Shakespeare so transcendent is how he captures moments from life – real life, not just stage life or life as a simulation.  We find ourselves recognizing certain behavior whether it flatters us or not.  From our best citizens to our slimiest villains, the human canvas is rendered for us to behold, to wonder, to experience and to analyze.

What I love and am mystified by in this extended exchange is how Desdemona provokes Iago the way good girls flirt with bad boys all the time.  And it is a kind of flirting, isn’t it?

She scolds Iago even as she prods him into praising her, but as an excuse really to take delight in Iago’s scandalous retorts.

The key for me to understanding this passage is to recognize that Desdemona here is really us.  Shakespeare knows that Iago is the most fun part to play – he’s an actor, remember, and he knows a good role when he writes one.

The crucial element comes, however, when Desdemona distinguishes between acting a part and actually being a bad character.  She may take as much delight in Iago’s scandalous behavior as we do, but she would be the first to draw the line and say enough, time to stop messing around.

Iago is extremely harsh when talking about Emilia, his wife.  We see this kind of behavior from husbands and wives all the time, snarling in otherwise innocent situations to express their pent-up displeasure.  We can only imagine what Emilia has had to put up with, being married to such a curr as Iago.  She has lived much more than Desdemona has, knows the real world much better as we intuit from her responses to Desdemona in Act IV.  She would sleep with a man for the “right” reasons – if it could advance her husband’s career, for example.

Desdemona’s reactions here and elsewhere are those of a younger girl still fired by hopes, dreams and idealism, who shades the world into blacks and whites, rather than grays.  It may be fun to flirt with a guy like Iago, but she would never dream of marrying him.  That is why she, like a fairytale princess, rejected every other suitor who asked for her hand back in Venice.

She has chosen a man who inspired her mind rather than won her heart.  Othello is valiant, a warrior who has seen and survived much.  He aspires to do good, even when he ends up doing wrong.  He has made a great name as a warrior.  It is easy to understand why a young girl might fall for a man with such a history – and with such big ambitions.

But it’s also easy to imagine that she hasn’t had a lot of fun in her life, either.  We know that Brabantio has kept her under lock and key, and that a lot of expectations have been riding on her choice of husband.  Seafaring battles, adventures in general, are not open to her as a career choice.  So, again, she almost becomes Belle-like in Beauty and the Beast, a girl with imagination who has few real options, choosing a “beast” like Othello with a noble heart and prospects to take her out into the wider world.

Could this be what Shakespeare means by having her argue so passionately to accompany her husband to Cyprus?  Why else did Desdemona risk everything to smuggle herself out of the house and elope with a man who would shatter her father and change her life forever?

Even a seemingly straightforward character such as Desdemona has so many aspects to her in the hands of Shakespeare.  We, as readers, must search between the lines and be alert for subtle clues and suggestions that might pass us right by.  He rewards us for that effort again and again.

I’m not arguing that this is the “right” reading of Desdemona, if such a thing exists.  But I do offer that the element of complexity itself would be enough to make Shakespeare a hall-of-famer in the annals of literature.

We can read him again and again, drawing new layers and levels with each pass.  The characters seem to grow as much as we do, to the limits of what we are capable of understanding and beyond.

Beguiling, yes.  In oh-so-many ways!


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