Friday, February 21, 2014

Shakesblogging 450: Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and second person pronouns

I'm teaching Othello this week, and I went to see a touring production with some of the students yesterday. God, that play is good. I say this as someone who isn't really a tragedy person. (OK, I like Desdemona because she is really a comedy heroine -- plucky, witty, independent of mind -- before being trapped in a foreign country and an abusive marriage takes that from her. You realize what a great character she is when you watch it. When students only read it, I think the submissive Desdemona of the last two acts tends to loom larger in their minds; but she is desperate, and bewildered, and has no good options by then.)

One of my favorite features of early modern English is the difference between "you" and "thou." (Well, favorite in that it's fun to look at in the classroom. I'm very glad I don't speak a language where you have to make such distinctions in everyday life, as I suspect it's a social minefield and I have enough trouble with unwritten social rules as it is.)

One of the things I always like pointing out in the classroom, when I teach 3.3, is that Desdemona starts "thou"-ing Cassio around line 20 or so: it's the equivalent of a verbal pat on the shoulder, an everything's-going-to-be-all-right moment. Which, of course, it isn't -- because the other striking thing about this scene is that Desdemona doesn't address her husband as "thou," not when she's trying to coax him to pardon Cassio, nor anywhere else in the play. He uses "thou" with her; she never uses anything but "you" with him, although she's willing to get more informal with Cassio, Emilia, and even Iago.

Iago's choice of Cassio isn't random. There's a real closeness there, a level of intimacy that she doesn't share with Othello, despite his best efforts. It's a totally innocent closeness (Desdemona seems to have a penchant for innocent opposite-sex friendships, a relationship that I believe is not actually supposed to exist in early modern society), and it's understandable that she's a little in awe of her much-older, war hero husband; but it gives Iago something to build on.

Close reading for fun and profit!