Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Desdemona v. Cordelia

Happened to hear something on NPR last night that is probably one of those, "Oh sure, everybody knows that" things, but I'm pretty sure we've never actually discussed it here on the blog.

Desdemona, early in the play, talking about a daughter's obligation to her father:

My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter: but here's my husband,
And so much duty as my mother show'd
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.

You know what I'm going to put it up against, right?  Cordelia, early in the play, talking about a daughter's obligation to her father:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
I'd never noticed how nearly identical those two speeches are.  (As the NPR host noted, Othello productions are often so focused on the Iago/Othello relationship that Desdemona comes across as a "nothing" character, and I think I've typically felt the same way.  And only now that I write it do I realize the irony in putting a "nothing" character up against Cordelia :))

I actually think that Desdemona scores a stronger point with "I'm only doing the exact same thing that Mom did when she married you."

Maggie Smith as Desdemona to Sir Laurence Olivier's Othello
Have there been other echoes of this passage in his other, even earlier works? There's nobody really to give that speech in Macbeth or Hamlet, and I think it speaks volumes that Juliet is not in a position to deliver such a speech in her play.  What about the comedies? Neither Beatrice, Rosalind or Viola have a father figure to rebel against. I suppose Hermia might have had a shot at it, but she has to deal directly with Theseus, which isn't really a fair comparison.

Have I  missed anybody?

1 comment:

Kris McDermott said...

Portia in the Merchant of Venice effectively does the same thing -- chooses husband over father -- if you think (as most of my students do) that she cheats in the casket challenge by playing the song about not choosing by sight alone for Bassanio first.