SHAKESPEARE’S WORD FOR LOVE
If at the time of your death you were given the chance to choose a single body part which would live on through another’s life and in another era, what would it be and what would it embody?
Nearly 3 months have gone by since this class on transmedial Shakespeare has began. Facts, figures and representations of this transmediality have been laid out and yet the most basic question, to me, has remain unanswered. “What is Shakesperean to begin with?” Given the reality of canonicity and capitalism, what of Shakespeare remains to live on in every “Shakesperean form?” Perhaps that is one question that I dare not be so bold to answer, but only seek to explore certain aspects of, and that I will strive to do by looking at the transmediality of Shakespeare’s character Desdemona portrayed through the art of painting.
Paintings, unlike the dynamism of current forms of visual arts have the inherent characteristic of capturing that which is quintessential in what is being depicted. A sense of permanence is thus evoked by freezing moments or characteristic traits in a single frame.
Among the plays of Shakespeare which I have read, it was the character of Desdemona in Othello which came so alive in me. However, it wasn’t her seemingly faultlessness which I came to admire but rather the intricacy and depth with which Shakespeare has molded her – for his characters are “recognizable men and at the same time devils, demigods, and forces in nature” (Kernan xxxiv).
Desdemona, distinguished greatly for her “untainted love” towards Othello has to a great extent been depicted less human and more like a deified mortal – a demigod. Paintings of her have usually portrayed her in a seemingly “glowing” state – a depiction customarily given to saints or gods. An example of this is the 19th century artist, Heinrich Hofmann’s work titled Othello Approaches the Sleeping Desdemona. Numerous artists, in painting her have set the focus on her through evident differentiations in the shade of light.
An outstanding French portraitist in the 19th century by the name of Théodore Chassériau has painted Desdemona from 2 different scenes and yet with highly similar characteristics. In 1849, he painted Desdemona Retiring To Her Bed and the year after that, he did Othello and Desdemona in Venice. In both paintings, her leaning head, neatly tucked hair and silenced mouth seem to suggest the timidity and submissiveness which she is noted for.
Similar with depictions of some of Shakespeare’s female chara cters such as Ophelia, the white flowing robe has often been used to evoke chastity, such as in the 1870 painting of Pierre-Raymond-Jacques Monvoisin titled Othello and Desdemona.
It is also interesting to note how her hands are fixated implicating the grace and pious affection known to be inherent in her. From works dating from 1869 and on to the year 2010, Robert Alexander Hillingford and Jane Whiting Chrzanoska’s Desdemona has had her hands folded as a sign of piety and dearly awe.
Indeed, these “stereotypical” traits have been attributed to the “maid that paragons description and wild fame” (2.1.61-62) from works as early as in the year 1799 work of Thomas Stothard and on to Hugo Konig in the 19th century which artistically embodies all these traits in a single frame.
Aside from these works however, are the more surprising and intriguing depictions of the renowned member of the French Romantic movement, Eugene Delacroix, French painter Alexandre Marie-Colin and Adolphe Weisz. Here the strength and independence of Desdemona’s character is greatly highlighted through the “liberation” of the timid and subservient woman she has always been perceived to be. Delacroix’s depiction of her in a dark robe with flowing and disarrayed hair and half-exposed breasts speaks much about the boldness of her mouth and the independence of her mind to go against the norms of Venetian society by taking her choice of relationship into her own hands, even “respectfully” opposing her father and marrying Othello.
The two nude portraits of Desdemona on the other hand reminded me of the image of “an old black ram…tupping [Brabantio’s]” white ewe” (1.1.88-89) which was mentioned in the play. The nudity portrayed in these paintings however did not serve to deny the purity of Desdemona, but rather served to strengthen the portrayal of Desdemona’s beauty even at the time of her death, wrought by her utter innocence of the very cause of it; for just as “murder may be a loving act, love [then] may be a murdering act” (Sprengnether 251).
Depictions may differ and paintings of her may then be altered generation after generation but still the very essence of the persona behind Desdemona continues to live on as the woman who for love, lived and died. Her heroic yet graceful hands, her bold yet gentle lips, her fearless yet innocent eyes have continually survived in portraits of her, capturing the strength and purity of her heart owing to her doubted and yet untainted love. Truly, “she is Shakespeare’s word for love” (Kernan xxxv), and as long as the raging passions of love and jealousy continue to stir the hearts of men, so will Shakespeare remain, embodied in his very works of art…
Kernan, Alvin. Introduction. Othello. By William Shakespeare (Signet Classic). 1986. Canada: Penguin Books Canada Limited, 1963. xxiii-xxxv. Print.
Long, Bill. “Desdemona I.” drbillong.com. drbillong, 2004-2007. Web. 12 Jan. 2011.
—. “Desdemona’s Love.” drbillong.com. drbillong, 2004-2007. Web. 12 Jan. 2011.
Martin, Helena Saville (Faucit). On some of Shakespeare’s female characters: Ophelia, Portia, Desdemona, Juliet, Imogen, Rosalind, Beatrice, Hermione. 5th ed. New York : AMS Press, 1970. Print.
Sprengnether, Madelon Gholke. “I Wooed Thee With My Sword: Shakespeare’s Tragic Paradigms.” Othello. Ed. Alvin Kernan. Canada: Penguin Books Canada Limited, 1963. 245-269. Print.
Disclaimer: All of the images that were used in this post are the property of their respective owners.
MELANIE JOY GUNIO
College of Arts and Letters
University of the Philippines
Diliman, Quezon City