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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: Let’s return at this point to some of the critical assertions made about Desdemona– that she’s weak, that she’s whorish, that she’s one of Shakespeare’s most erotic characters, and that she’s merely a silly child. Whatever might be said about Desdemona critically, whatever the text might be seen to reveal about her, the character only truly comes to fruition in performance. And in this section, we’ll look briefly at how Desdemona has been portrayed on stage in Britain– in particular, in past productions at the RSC– and how this reflects changing perceptions of the character. One of the things we immediately notice when looking for accounts of Desdemona in performance is that there aren’t many.

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds Most accounts of productions focus on the characters of Othello and Iago. One might say that the actresses performing Desdemona have been as silenced as the character. So what do we know about early performances of the role? Well, we know that, from the beginning, men wept at Desdemona and her demise, even though at this point she was played by a boy or a young man. The first reference to Desdemona in performance is by Henry Jackson, a member of Oxford University, who saw the play performed there by Shakespeare’s company in 1610.

Skip to 1 minute and 24 seconds He writes, “That famous Desdemona killed before us by her husband, although she always acted her whole part supremely well, yet when she was killed she was even more moving, for when she fell back upon the bed she implored the pity of the spectators by her very face.” 50 years later, once the theatres have reopened, with the restoration of Charles II to the throne, we find similar reactions to the character. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys writes that, when he went to see Othello, “A very pretty lady that sat by me called out to see Desdemona smothered.” Of course, by the restoration, the role was finally being played by a woman.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 seconds And indeed, Desdemona is cited as the first role to have been performed by an actress on the London stage. It was towards the end of the 18th century that substantial cuts started to be made to the text in the name partly of length and partly of decorum. The acting edition of 1755 printed for T. Whitford contains numerous cuts which may well have been regularly used before that time. The most significant of these, for both Desdemona and Emilia, is the cutting of the entire willow song scene– act 4, scene 3– something that current Emilia, Ayesha Dharker, finds difficult to imagine.

Skip to 2 minutes and 44 seconds AYESHA DHARKER: I think the willow scene, especially in our production, is so important, not just for Emilia but I think for Desdemona as well. Because in our version, it’s where these two women– I think Emilia starts to see Desdemona as a human being in the chapel scene and the scene that precedes it. But I think this is the one where they have a conversation about things that are important to them. And it would be a huge loss to have it excised from the play, because it is such a male play. And the whole play is about these boys and their attitude to women. And it’s so nice to hear the women that they are talking about.

Skip to 3 minutes and 39 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: We’re going to explore this scene in detail in the next section. The effects of these cuts were to weaken the character of Desdemona. And it seems that the ideal 18th century Desdemona was a pitiful one. Susan Cibber, a famous 18th century actress, was praised at having excelled in the expression of love, grief, and tenderness. Even the actress Sarah Siddons, who performed the role between 1785 an 1805 and was framed for her feisty Lady Macbeth appears to have played Desdemona with what one critic called a violet-like sweetness. The diminishment of the role continued into the 19th century, with the character stripped of some of her finest lines.

Skip to 4 minutes and 24 seconds When the actress Fanny Kemble was approaching Desdemona with Charles McCready as Othello, he warned her of the part that, “There has absolutely nothing to be done with it, nothing.” Reviewers continued to stress the character’s tenderness and lovely gentleness. However, the most famous actresses to play the role in the era– Helen Faucit, Fanny Kemble, and Ellen Terry– strove to assert the strong moral characteristics of Desdemona and her courageousness and strength. Helen Faucit succeeded Fanny Kemble as McCready’s Desdemona. Unusually, not only for the period but across time, she wrote quite extensively about her performance in a book of letters on some of Shakespeare’s female characters. Of Desdemona, she wrote, “Desdemona is usually considered a merely amiable, simple, yielding creature.

Skip to 5 minutes and 17 seconds This is the last idea that would have entered my mind. To me, she was in all things worthy to be a hero’s bride and deserving the highest love, reverence, and gratitude from the noble Moor.” The famous actress Ellen Terry played Desdemona with three different Othellos, Henry Irving and Edwin Booth in 1881 and Frank Cooper in 1898. She too was keen to assert Desdemona’s strength. The general idea seems to be that Desdemona is a ninny, a pathetic figure chiefly because she is half baked. It is certainly the idea of those who think an actress of the dolly type. A pretty young thing with a vapid, innocent expression is well suited to the part.

Skip to 5 minutes and 59 seconds I shall perhaps surprise you by telling you that a great tragic actress with a strong personality and a strong method is far better suited to it, for Desdemona is strong, not weak. And yet, reviews of her performance describe it as gentle, tender, pathetic, and delicate. How very frustrating that must have been. And so we move to the 20th and 21st centuries. 20th and 21st century Desdemonas have, in most cases, at least benefited from the restoration of a number of their lines and the reinclusion of the willow song seen. Desdemona has often received more stage time, because her elopement with Othello has opened the production in silent mime before the dialogue between Iago and Rodrigo.

Skip to 6 minutes and 47 seconds However, this doesn’t mean that they haven’t struggled to escape the rather odd stereotype, given what we’ve explored of the character, of Desdemona as a weak, fragile character. The actor Godfrey Tearle, who played Othello at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford in 1948 to 1949 remarked that the part usually went to the blonde, simpering girl who acted Ophelia on the other nights. And indeed for the first five decades of the century, this was mostly the case. According to critic and editor Michael Neill, it was not until the advent of Maggie Smith as Oliver’s Old Vic bride at 1964 that a wholesale reinterpretation of the part, harking back to Terry’s protofeminist heroine, was attempted.

Skip to 7 minutes and 31 seconds Kenneth Tynan, the notorious critic, pronounced that, “The milksop Desdemona has been banished from the stage and a girl of real personality and substance comes into her own.” Certainly feminist criticism and feminist theatre practise have influenced the playing of Desdemona in the latter part of the 20th and the 21st century. And there’s been an increase sexuality present in performances of the role, notably in that of Sarah Stephenson, who was naked for the murder scene at the Mermaid Theatre in 1971, and Lisa Harrow at the RSC in 1971 to ‘72, who Michael Billington described in his Guardian review as “a headstrong sensualist, forever wandering about the camp in nothing but a Freudian slip.” Other RSC Desdemonas have been notable for their toughness.

Skip to 8 minutes and 19 seconds Suzanne Bertish at the RSC in 1979, described by Michael Billington as a girl of guts. And more recently, Zoe Waites at the RSC in 1999, who was, according to Billington, “no wilting moppet but a strong woman capable of ‘downright violence’ in marrying the Moor and a vehement retaliation when accused of whoredom.” Others have reverted to the vulnerable, pretty, young heroine. It’s difficult to reconstruct performances. And one’s often therefore forced to rely on theatre reviews to gain some sense of how a character was played. The RSC’s only done the play twice in the 21st century before this current production. And in both, the reviews suggest that the Desdemona had reverted to the vulnerable innocent.

Skip to 9 minutes and 5 seconds Reviews of the current production have described Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona as hedonistic yet vulnerable, a striking Desdemona combining a tactile physicality with a total devotion to Othello, and attractively mettlesome. Iqbal Khan, the director, see her as a strong, witty, willful character.

Skip to 9 minutes and 27 seconds IQBAL KHAN: Before we’re even present with her onstage– which she’s talked about before she even comes on– we have this image of this woman that initiated this relationship with this great general. We have a picture, an image, of her wit, of her playfulness, the strength of her mind. And then when she does come on stage and has to represent herself and speak in front of the Senate, she does so with incredible poise.

Skip to 9 minutes and 58 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: The other female roles also suffered cuts in the 18th century. Indeed, the role of Bianca was often cut entirely. She appears in a cast list in 1740 but in 1770 is described as having been “totally excluded from the stage.” She doesn’t reappear again until the end of the 19th century. However, in the 20th and 21st centuries, she has, as Lois Potter states, been taken seriously as a character rather than a comic floozy. The character has been depicted sympathetically by a number of directors– noticeably, Janet Suzman in her 1987 production at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.

Skip to 10 minutes and 38 seconds In this production, at the end of act 5, scene 1, Bianca was abandoned by the other characters and attacked, raped, and killed by Iago’s soldiers. How is Bianca depicted in the current RSC production?

Skip to 10 minutes and 51 seconds IQBAL KHAN: Bianca is an incredibly vivid creation by Shakespeare. She’s not on for very long. But when she’s on, she’s running those scenes. She is absolutely dominating Cassio throughout those scenes, which is wonderful. Now, I think you could present her as a type sexually, has enormous licence, a bit of a harridan maybe. But that’s Cassio’s description of her to Iago. That’s men talking to men. Where we see the two of them alone, she’s much more complicated than that. Again, what’s suggested in this is that this is a new relationship there. There is a little bit of history. But you do feel that Bianca has an ache for him, that there is a desire for something more serious.

Skip to 11 minutes and 49 seconds There is some quality of love or devotion there. But she wants it on her terms.

Skip to 11 minutes and 59 seconds And society won’t allow her that. What we are aware of, as audience members, is that there’s no way that Cassio could ever realistically have a relationship with her, a serious relationship. And I think our Bianca is kind of aware of that throughout. A very interesting moment is when Emilia herself– a woman, obviously– challenges Bianca and uses the language of a society that marginalises a woman like her. Very telling. Very upsetting, I think.

Skip to 12 minutes and 39 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: For the character of Emilia through the 18th and part of the 19th century, undoubtedly the most damaging cut was the willow scene, which was initially shortened and then cut altogether. Why cut this scene? Possibly time restraints, possibly lack of interest in the female characters. However, Michael Neill suggests that decorum was the real motive. The mildly bawdy tone of the women’s conversation in the subversive protofeminism of Emilia’s diatribe against husbands were felt to be improper. The cutting of many of Emilia’s lines made her a more virtuous character, a moral touchpoint for the audience, with the key moment for the character being her speech in 4, 2, in which he comes close to discovering Iago’s plot.

Skip to 13 minutes and 26 seconds EMILIA: I will be hanged, if some eternal villain, some busy and insinuating rogue, some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, have not devised this slander. I will be hanged else!

Skip to 13 minutes and 36 seconds IAGO: Fie, it is impossible. There is no such man.

Skip to 13 minutes and 40 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: In the 20th century, one of the features of the role of Emilia has been a fuller exploration of her relationship with Iago, a relationship which has often been portrayed as cold and abusive. In Trevor Nunn’s 1989 production for the RSC, later filmed, this was brought to the fore. Iago was clearly jealous and suspicious of his wife, and she was evidently jealous of Desdemona’s affectionate relationship with Othello. Emilia, played by Zoe Wanamaker, is a key character in this production, has significance as a character established from the outset, when she’s shown to be indifferent to the fate of Othello and to Desdemona’s distress, sitting on a box looking bored while Desdemona and the others await the arrival of Othello.

Skip to 14 minutes and 22 seconds Her relationship with Desdemona is cold and envious until the willow scene, in which the two women share a hidden box of sweets and finally embrace. This feminine bond is finally privileged over a desire for affection from our husband in act 5 scene 2, the murder scene, in which she rejects Iago’s attempts of physical contact. How are the relationships between Emilia and Iago and Emilia and Desdemona handled in the current production? How does Ayesha Dharker, who plays Emilia, see the relationship between Emilia and Iago?

Skip to 14 minutes and 56 seconds AYESHA DHARKER: In this version, the way I see the relationship between Emilia and Iago is that he is the centre of her universe. It’s already quite broken, completely broken. By the time we begin the journey with them, Iago really– I mean, she’s irrelevant in his world. I think she’s only there because Othello has asked for her to be there to care for Desdemona. But she, I think, is in denial about how broken her relationship is with Iago and is absolutely desperate to make herself relevant again. And I think if she can’t do that by being a good wife and if she can’t do that by captivating his attention, then she tries to make herself useful.

Skip to 15 minutes and 47 seconds But she never gets let in. She never gets told the whole story. And so the whole thing is a kind of dance with him to try and work out what it is, and that’s her absolute undoing.

Skip to 16 minutes and 1 second ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: What about her relationship with Desdemona?

Skip to 16 minutes and 5 seconds AYESHA DHARKER: I think, at first, the relationship with Desdemona is not as it exists in the play for us. I think that they are two creatures from completely different worlds. I think Emilia sees Desdemona as a bit of a brat, as someone who’s had everything so easy and with a kind of rosy view of the world.

Skip to 16 minutes and 28 seconds But I think they have much more in common than she imagines. And I think that when Desdemona’s– when terrible things happen to her and she sees her behave with such grace, and that Desdemona’s belief in her love for Othello is so unshakable. I mean, there’s a horrible parallel of that in Emilia’s love for Iago. You know, Iago is a fabulous manipulator. But I think that her love for him is so embedded in her that it’s impossible for her to believe that she shouldn’t be proud to be his wife, that he isn’t the most incredible man that she’s ever met.

Skip to 17 minutes and 15 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON WOODALL: Director Iqbal Khan sees the two relationships as being in tension.

Skip to 17 minutes and 20 seconds IQBAL KHAN: Often what you have is you have an assumption of sisterhood from the very, very beginning, that these two women are in sympathy with each other, et cetera, et cetera. And so therefore, their final scene together is inevitable in some senses– a woman in distress abused, Desdemona getting the compassion that you would expect from another woman, Emilia. However, I don’t think the play suggests that. At the very beginning of the play, what Othello says is, oh, and by the way, Iago, have your wife attend on mine in Cyprus. I don’t think there’s any history between these two women. Emilia is in service to Desdemona. And actually, in a lot of those early scenes, she sort of doesn’t see her.

Skip to 18 minutes and 8 seconds Neither woman is really visible to each other. They are very much stuck in their places in society. So what’s interesting to me is, in terms of Emilia’s relationship with Iago, is that whole loyalty early on is obviously going to be with her husband. Now, that relationship is a lot more complicated. If you think of the Desdemona-Othello relationship as one of innocence and the promise of joy, that it’s all about the promise of that to come, in some sense is what Iago and Emilia’s is about, is about the end of innocence, the hollowness of compromise and betrayal. Iago constantly centres around this idea that he feels Emilia has betrayed him– betrayed him with Cassio, with Othello, with others.

Skip to 19 minutes and 12 seconds And so it seem to me, when we were working on it, that there was still an enormous desire on Emilia’s part to connect emotionally with him.

Skip to 19 minutes and 27 seconds And there was a sense I felt that Iago wanted to protect Emilia from that that was going on underneath, but that they couldn’t fundamentally connect anymore. The trust had been broken, that there was an emptiness and a hollowness, a rot that Emilia hoped she could cure. And Iago had become complacent about it.

Past portrayals

In this video Abigail talks about past productions and their portrayal of the female characters. As you watch consider:

  • The extent to which characters only really come to fruition in performance.

  • The ways in which interpretations of the three characters have changed over time.

Having watched the video share your thoughts on the following questions in the Comments:

  • Which of the interpretations do you most agree with? Why?

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This video is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham