Performing Death and Desire in Othello

Monday, March 17, 2014


Performance mythologies associated with Othello—from the vehemence of audience reactions to the violence of actors playing Othello—make the final scene a daunting one for an actor playing Desdemona.  The enduring image she leaves with the audience (and critics) may have more to do with her post-murder posture than any other aspect of her performance, as reflected in Henry Jackson’s frequently cited observation that the Desdemona of a 1610 production moved the audience “more after she was dead, when, lying on her bed, she entreated the pity of the spectators by her very countenance.”1 In Othello and elsewhere, Shakespeare is one of the “many early modern dramatists” who “chose to blatantly showcase the female corpse.”2 Being an active (living) object of the audience’s gaze and being a passive (dead) one are, for both actor and character, different things.  For the actor, embodying a passive presence on stage frustrates the creative impulse to play action, to work toward objectives and to pursue goals (as actors are trained to do).  For the character, being “dead” means not only ending an on-stage life, but also losing the advocacy of the actor—that is, being embodied by a performer with no agency.   Partially drawing on my recent experience playing Desdemona in a professional Shakespeare festival production, I wish to investigate the implications of performing death and explore some ways in which its convergence with desire might be conceptualized (and complicated).3

The day that we blocked the murder scene was the first time I considered how long I was going to have to be dead onstage (in bed, in a nightie, in a spotlight).  As we discussed the difficulties of performing death, particularly for such a lengthy scene, the director shared a story of a drunken audience member on the front row during a performance of Hamlet of which he had been a part.  Moments after the death of Laertes, the man said, in a deeply southern   accent and an exaggerated whisper that reverberated throughout the house and stage, “La-er-tes!  La-er-tes!  I see you breathin’.  You ain’t dead.  I see you breathin’!”  Of course, whether this parallels the “blurring of boundaries between life and art” that Lois Potter observes in Othello’s performance history (1), or simply affirms Cassio’s assertion that when men “put an enemy in their mouths” it can “steal away their brains” is debatable.4 What it does emphasize is the impossibility—and the absurdity—of the job for the actor playing dead. 

But once she is dead, there must the “divine Desdemona” lie looking lovely.  The scene exemplifies Dympna Callaghan’s assertion that “female corpses are constructed as focal points for ocular inspection by other characters on stage and by the audience in a way that male bodies are not”—Desdemona’s (the actor’s) body is scrutinized, covered, uncovered, touched, groped, kissed, and sweated upon as the remainder of the plot unravels.5 In this way, playing Desdemona dead emblematizes many of the difficulties of playing Desdemona alive.  Victorian actress Ellen Terry acknowledged such challenges in an 1881 production that featured Henry Irving and Edwin Booth alternating the roles of Othello and Iago.  Working with two actors who approached the role of Othello differently alerted Terry to the constraints of her own role.  As Potter notes, “playing opposite two different Othellos in quick succession made her aware of the extent to which her performance depended on theirs” (55). Even with only one Othello, if the actor playing Desdemona is not matched with a director predominantly invested in her particular plight, her characterization can be as conditional as volitional.  Approaches to the role neatly worked out in the isolation of study cannot always be precisely materialized in the collaboration of rehearsal and performance. That is, despite her predetermined goals and tactics, the actor can only behave believably if she responds to what her Othello actually does—if he is “raving and stamping under her nose,” as Terry described Irving in the role, then she must react as a woman confronted with (and threatened by) such rage.6 In this way, the actor’s position mirrors the character’s when she says to Othello, “Whate’er you be, I am obedient” (3.3.89).  Whatever Othello chooses to do, Desdemona must, on some level, comply. 

The intensely frustrating fact of Desdemona’s contingency on the choices of the actor playing Othello is rhetorically emphasized by the character’s persistent, redundant compliance throughout the play—rarely does she speak to Othello without rehearsing her submissiveness with some iteration of “my lord” (which she says over 30 times during the course of her stage time).  Even the interaction with Othello during which she assertively sues for Cassio’s reinstatement begins and ends with “my lord” (3.3.41, 86), and her attempt to later explain Othello’s strange behavior relies on the contradictory construction, “my lord is not my lord” (3.4.125).7 Perhaps even more than Shakespeare’s other female characters, Desdemona’s rhetorical redundancy demands her restraint, forecasting her passivity long before she is dead.  The ways in which directors and actors historically conspired to demonstrate this compliance is at least one reason that, as Potter notes, “by the end of the eighteenth century it was already agreed that Emilia was the better of the two parts” (50). As Martha Ronk asserts, though scholarship surrounding Desdemona has traditionally identified her “as either passive victim or transcendent icon… she is rather both.”8 Ronk’s conclusion is not only more palatable to, but more performable by, the modern actor, who does not play “the abstractions of ‘femininity,’” but rather tackles the task of embodying “a particular woman enclosed in a narrative that pretends to be universal.”9 This pursuit of specificity can be the actor’s greatest challenge.

Andrew James Hartley’s description of Irish actor Sinead Cusack’s approach to any role resonates with my own:  the “unique character” springs forth from “the details of the script as mediated by the actor’s sense of self and personal history,” what Hartley calls “the deliberate fusion” of the actor’s “own personality with that of the character.”10 For me, this means that a strong ethical center, a palpable sense of vulnerability, and an intense maternal instinct find some manifestation in character formation (along with other intimate fears and wishes).  That Desdemona marries Othello without her father’s permission, for example, can be the result of a strong ethical center—a bold belief that she should defy social codes not only if they disallow the pursuit of her desires, but if they contradict her conception of what is right, along with the confident (subversive) assertion that she can be “divided” in her “duty” and not be wrong (1.3.181).  Her father’s incredulity that his daughter could be capable of such assertiveness—“a maiden never bold, / Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion / Blushed at herself”—suggests not that she has deceptively played the role of dutiful daughter, but that her discovery of love has been a dynamic one, giving her occasion to behave differently than perhaps she has before.  She is unflinching in her first scene because she has faith in her new marriage; it is this same assuredness of her security with Othello that causes her later to misread his cues.  In the willow scene, Desdemona’s reliance on what Ronk calls “matrilinear memory” (66), coupled with her intimacy with Emilia, foster her vacillation between vulnerability and resilience. And, most certainly in part because my baby was five months old when I played the role, I was aware of Desdemona’s prospective maternity, and how the final bedroom scene—particularly in relationship to the willow scene—can be a subtle reminder of this unrealized potential (since the bed is the location not only of the mysterious consummation of the marriage and the violent murder, but the anticipated site of childbirth as well). 

The tension born of Desdemona’s legitimate desires and doubts under the pressure of ludicrous circumstances can make for compelling work.  The position in which Desdemona finds herself—newlywed, disowned, far away from the familiar, isolated in a hyper-masculine military space, confronting her hitherto adoring husband’s inexplicably violent behavior, and defending herself against far-fetched accusations of infidelity with a trusted friend—is outrageous.  No “abstractions of femininity” facilitate this unreasonable situation, nor do they provide adequate means of response.  One quandary for the actor playing Desdemona, then, is to determine how to play within the text’s linguistic parameters without allowing them to paralyze, prescribe, or generalize her performance.  Like any actor, she must also remain flexible enough to respond in real time to her partner’s behavior, regardless of her predetermined analyses.  And, she must subordinate some of her own interests to the greater goals of the production (i.e., Desdemona’s potential motherhood was useful only to me).  In my performance situation, approaching the murder as an extreme act of submission would have been incongruous with the modernized setting of our production.  But why does Desdemona not do more to escape this fate?  Why does she take the slap in front of Lodovico?  Why does she send Emilia away when her sense of foreboding is so clearly profound?  I struggled to find ways in which Desdemona’s strong ethical center, willingness to be vulnerable, and maternal loss (the loss of her mother and the loss of her own maternity) might account for more than just “the deliberate fusion” of my personality with hers.

The longer I lay dead during the rehearsal period, the more interested I became in the conception of victimization as a trope in the discourse of love, largely because it allows the victim some agency.  Specifically, the imaginative functions of anatomization offer a promising parallel not only to one of the period’s more macabre poetic images but also to the vulnerability required by the role.  Metaphorically, it supports the openness I saw as vital to my Desdemona—it is both her generosity and her genuineness that allow Iago to turn “her virtue into pitch” (2.3.355).  Further, it helped me reconcile my resistance to forecasting my own demise with the play’s escalating tone of doom (more challenging in this role than in any other part I’ve ever played).  Ultimately, the practice of anatomization positions the corpse as an object of scrutiny in a way that resonates with the play’s final scene—and, significantly, in its poetic uses, the corpse holds the power. 

Othello’s investment in the condition of Desdemona’s corpse is clear when he imagines mutilating it:  “I will tear her all to pieces” (3.3.447); “I will chop her into messes” (4.1.186).  I was alerted to the notion of dissection, in part, because I was so stunned by the brutality of these lines as I heard them time and time again.  Othello’s vivid projections of dissection participate in a cultural fascination with the controversial practice of anatomization. Theatres of anatomy sought to revise “the popular conception of what constituted ‘the dead,’” as Susan Zimmerman explains (327). The punitive function of anatomy—the bodies of criminals were often “transported from the scaffold to the anatomy theatre” as a form of extended punishment (in the name of science)—seems to have stimulated eroticism in some of the period’s poetry, what Jonathan Sawday calls “vivid dreams of punishment and partition.”11  In such poems, “the subject actively seeks his or her own dissection” for the purpose of exposing and displaying truth (51). In John Donne’s “Loves Exchange,” for instance, the speaker has undergone torture prior to the prospect of anatomization:

                        Kill, and dissect me, Love; for this

                        Torture against thine own end is,

                        Rack’t carcasses make ill Anatomies.

The lover, Sawday argues, invites both murder and anatomization with the warning that his body—“rack’t” by his love as one who had been tortured prior to death—will not yield a tidy study (50-1). The corpse will, ironically, “torture” its killer.  Desdemona’s objection to Othello’s threats—“that death’s unnatural that kills for loving”—resonates with poetic images of murder and dissection like Donne’s, where the expected dissonance of “kill,” “dissect,” and “Love” is unnervingly absent (5.2.42).  Significant as well is Desdemona’s reluctance even at this point to figure Othello as her killer—it is, redundantly, “death” that “kills” and the “unnatural” motive is “loving.” Though she does not project her own dissection as Othello does, and certainly fights for her life when attacked, in Desdemona’s final pleas is an echo of the poetic invitation to murder—“kill me not”; “kill me tomorrow”—complicating her famously cryptic “Nobody.  I myself” (5.2.77, 79, 122).     

Zimmerman argues that the obvious aliveness of a “disembodied body” on stage stresses “the limits of theatrical representation” (334)—hence the drunken playgoer’s compulsion to call out Laertes for breathing. In the case of Othello, the sentience of the body further eroticizes an already explicit connection between death and desire.  That Othello’s fantasy of dissection dissolves into desire just before the murder attests to the power of Desdemona’s material body:  “Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, / And love thee after” (5.2.18-19).  For a live actor playing a dead character, the eroticism of the scene is, of course, more sensory than symbolic.  Staging my death in Othello far more resembled rehearsing rape than murder.  Indeed, in performance I felt most vulnerable in the scene not due to the fictional threat of death, but because of the palpable experience of physical exploitation.  Though I cannot claim that this is always the felt experience of actors portraying Desdemona, I can confidently assert that the script suggests the repeated (mis)handling of her corpse.  After the initial smothering, for instance, Othello immediately assaults Desdemona’s body again when he thinks she is still alive and suffering: “I would not have thee linger in thy pain. / So, so.” (5.2.87-8).  Though many choices are possible to punctuate the “so, so”—stabbing, suffocating, strangling—certainly the line reads as a cue for some kind of physical action.  Soon thereafter, Othello responds with panicked indecision to the shouts of Emilia outside the door, still clearly in contact with (touching, holding, pinioning, straddling?) the dead body:

Ha, no more moving?

Still as the grave.  Shall she come in?  were’t good?

                        I think she stirs again. No—what’s best to do?

If she come in she’ll sure speak to my wife.

My wife, my wife!  what wife?  I have no wife.  (5.2.92-6)

In the midst of Emilia’s developing discovery of her own husband’s culpability in her mistress’ murder, Othello falls on the bed (near the body, with the body, on the body?) with an anguished “O! O! O!,” to which Emilia responds “Nay, lay thee down and roar” (5.2.195).  And, finally, Othello’s frantic speech upon Gratiano’s entrance affords him ample opportunity (and direction) to caress, cradle, or cling to the corpse.  His comments on the condition of her skin—“O ill-starred wench, / Pale as thy smock”; “Cold, cold, my girl, / Even like thy chastity”—invite his physical contact with the body, of course, and are followed by a series of desperate curses (5.2.270-1; 273-4): 

                        Whip me, ye devils,

                        From the possession of this heavenly sight!

                        Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur,

                        Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!

O Desdemon!  dead, Desdemon.  Dead!  O!  O! (5.2.275-9).

While playing Desdemona, the alterity of being simultaneously living and dead, passive and active, subject and object was never more awkward for me than during this particular speech (more so than even during the murder itself).  Othello’s desire, distress, and despair all merge in this moment, it seemed in production, and the prop onto which he projects his complicated emotions is Desdemona’s body.  Not to mention the sweat.   

Farah Karim-Cooper identifies Desdemona’s corpse as “an artistic construction of her former self,” claiming that “Othello’s love increases, as does his victim’s aesthetic value,” upon her death.12 When he addresses the corpse after he has learned of Desdemona’s innocence, he is concerned with how it appears:  “Now—how dost thou look now?” (5.2.281). Even before the murder, Othello acknowledges the body’s inevitable, impending decay:  “it must needs wither” (5.2.15).  As significant as Othello’s urge to “chop” and “tear” his wife’s body is his deliberate decision to “not shed her blood / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow” (5.2.3-4).  If, as Zimmerman notes, “anatomy purported to… harness the horror associated with the corpse, or even deny its existence” (328), then Othello’s decision to preserve Desdemona’s flesh reflects the resistance of her body to be “undone.” In fact, so tenacious is she that Othello can not seem to kill her adequately, and once she does (finally) die, her body remains central to the concluding action of the play, culminating in Othello’s outburst: “O Desdemon!  dead, Desdemon.  Dead!  O!  O!” (5.2.279). The corpse of Desdemona, like the body of the actor, proves a powerful mediator of the space between passive and active, dead and alive, object and subject.  Perhaps Henry Jackson’s emotional response to the “disembodied body” reveals not only “the pity of the spectators,” but also reflects Othello’s fears and fantasies when he asks, “Not dead?  Not yet quite dead?” (5.2.85).


  • 1. Quoted in Lois Potter, “Othello” in Performance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 5.
  • 2. Susan Zimmerman, “Duncan’s Corpse,” A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 320-338, 334.
  • 3. Founded in 2006, Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre is the only professional Shakespeare festival (and one of only three professional theatres) in the region. Othello was part of AST’s 2011 season.
  • 4. Othello, Arden Shakespeare, ed. E.A.J. Honigmann (London: Methuen, 1997), 2.3.286-7. Subsequent citations from Othello are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically.
  • 5. Dympna Callaghan, Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1989), 90.
  • 6. Quoted in Potter, 55.
  • 7. Perhaps more strikingly, in Q (though omitted by many editors), her final words to Othello are “O Lord! Lord! Lord!” (5.2.83)
  • 8. Martha Ronk, “Desdemona’s Self-Presentation,” English Literary Renaissance 35.1 (2005), 69, footnote 37.
  • 9. Penny Gay, As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women (London: Routledge, 1994), 4.
  • 10. Andrew James Hartley, “Sinead Cusack,” The Routledge Companion to Actor’s Shakespeare (London: Routledge, 2012), 15-26, 18 and 16.
  • 11. Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge, 1995), 48, 53.
  • 12. Farah Karim-Cooper, Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 174.