For their sixteenth season, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre offers an intriguing pairing: Othello and Much Ado About Nothing performed in repertory. Beneath their most famous aspects – Othello’s take on racial conflict; Much Ado’s “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick – lies the same plot, where a sinister interloper attempts to destroy a marriage by framing the wife for infidelity. Adding another layer of congruence to these productions are the casting choices. Actress Lauren Sowa plays both Desdemona and Hero, the target of these conspiracies in each respective play, and she kindly agreed to be interviewed about her roles.
This plot is a fairly popular one with Shakespeare. No fewer than four plays feature it, with small variations. In Othello, Iago targets Desdemona to get revenge on the titular character; in Much Ado, Don John slanders Hero to discomfort both Claudio and his brother Don Pedro, who arranged the match; in Cymbeline, Iachimo really, really wants to win a bet against Posthumus’ relationship with the faithful Innogen; and in The Winter’s Tale, Leontes himself destroys his marriage with his own paranoia by accusing his wife Hermione. One thing remains constant, however: all of the women are blameless. Whatever his take on the war between the sexes, Shakespeare isn’t interested in confirming the common stereotype of the unfaithful woman cuckolding her unwitting husband. Instead, he examines the purportedly “righteous” course of action for a man to follow upon suspecting adultery and pursues it all the way to its ugly conclusion.
However, just because the women are victimized in these plays does not necessarily mean that they must act like victims.
Sowa is not unfamiliar with this type of role: she performed as Desdemona last year for the Gallery Players in Brooklyn. In her blog, she said at the time:
In accepting the role of Desdemona, my main concern was to find the human being within the archetype of "obedient wife," "saint," "weak woman," or whatever other criticisms that have been assigned to her over the years. Most women I talk to think [she] is submissive and uninteresting. I think it's a shame that the qualities of obedience, loyalty, faithfulness, and love could be seen in our modern world as "boring" or "weak." In playing her, I chose to make these qualities my strength.
The women Sowa spoke to expressed reservations about the character; others take issue with the role itself. Noted critic Robert Brustein once claimed, rather histrionically, that “the passive, virtuous, all-suffering Desdemona is a part that must be inhabited rather than impersonated – which may be why it is so difficult to cast in an age of women’s liberation.” Besides the unpleasant implication that modern actresses are apparently incapable of convincingly performing a role unlike their natural inclinations (“acting”, as it is sometimes called), his seems like a reductive view of the character. Sowa’s approach, however, is to take both historical and current implications of the role into account; just because Desdemona – and Hero as well – predate the age of women’s liberation does not mean they predate the virtues and qualities it promoted.
While interviewing Sowa about her approach to these roles for the current productions, I asked about her experiences with Shakespearean gender studies:
I’ve never done specifically gender-focused work on Shakespeare, but I think that just being a modern woman working on this sort of antiquated text – I can’t help but approach it from a modern perspective. [...] I think people tend to write [Desdemona] off, as being weak, or as being subservient or submissive, and I just think that does her a disservice, because the very first thing she does before the play even starts is [rebel] against her father. And she marries the general in secret, like... she’s kind of a badass, you know?
Badass, indeed. The consequences of Desdemona’s rebellion were considerably greater in Shakespeare’s time than now. She risks not only losing her father’s approval and love, but also access to her fortunes under his control, in a time when it would be almost impossible to support herself. Furthermore, in marrying a man not only of a different social class but also of a different race, she risks losing the approval of society, becoming ostracized by the remainder of her family and friends. Potentially, marrying Othello could leave her penniless, alone, and completely dependent upon him to survive. It’s a calculated risk: we see that Othello’s martial success lessens some of the racist and classist prejudice against him and allows the couple to escape censure. Desdemona retains the support of her peers and her relatives. But she still loses her father, and could have lost her entire way of life.
So, naturally, her next decision is to risk even more, and follow her husband to a country on the verge of invasion. When she and Othello reunite in Cyprus after the (aborted) battle, he greets her with “Fair warrior!” A soldier she is not, but Desdemona has risked life and limb and is willing to fight, if mostly metaphorically, for her causes.
After asking Sowa if she had specifically changed anything for her performances with the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre from those with the Gallery Players, she noted:
Well, just having a different Othello [Forrest McClendon] changes my energy, but also Carmen [Khan], our director, really encouraged me to go even more strong with Desdemona [...] In certain places it manifests itself in different ways, but the best way that I can put it I guess is that I feel like my previous Desdemona was a girl, and my Desdemona now is a woman.
It’s a very effective interpretation: Sowa frames Desdemona’s decisions as those of an adult consciously negotiating the changes in her life, more than able to justify her choices to others. Othello’s complimentary “Fair warrior!” is fully deserved when it comes to her ability to defend herself verbally. Her defense of their marriage before the Venetian Senate in Act I is both impassioned and level-headed, eminently convincing that she has not been drugged and coerced, but has married Othello of her own free will. More importantly, in a production where J Hernandez’s Iago demonstrates again and again the power of his words over others, Desdemona is the only character to get the better of him in a battle of wits. After supporting Emilia against him when they all reunite in Act II, she challenges him to defend his pseudo-philosophical mockery of women. She is somewhat amused but openly skeptical, and when he wraps up his misogynistic scree, she shuts him down with a beautifully dismissive “O most lame and impotent conclusion!”
This Desdemona does not hesitate to express her opinions, even at the expense of her beloved husband. Though she clearly regrets losing the handkerchief Othello gave her, Sowa explained that her current approach to the character gives her an entirely different interpretation of the scene where Othello explains its significance:
When Othello [is] talking about the handkerchief – he’s like, “And it was dyed in mummy [...] conserved of maidens’ hearts.” Essentially, this handkerchief has been dyed in the blood of dead virgins. And that hit me in a way that has never hit me before, and I was like “That’s disgusting! No wonder she doesn’t want the handkerchief!” [...] I had a whole other sort of justification for that scene the last time I did the play, and it was more about my guilt that I had lost the handkerchief, and trying to make it better even [though] I knew that I had lost it, and I felt just terrible... and this time, it was more like “What are you talking about?”
In this production, Sowa delivers Desdemona’s next line, “Then would to God that I had never seen't!” with all the horrified disgust of someone who has just found out that the object she had been clutching lovingly to her face is made from dead people. It’s a very funny moment and a welcome, if fleeting, break from the tension. In rejecting the handkerchief, Desdemona is also rejecting what it represents: an object produced from the exploitation of women’s bodies, and the notion that she needs some outside influence to “make her amiable” and “subdue [her husband] entirely to her love.” The handkerchief’s value is entirely derived from it being a gift from her husband; Desdemona controls her own fate and is confident in her ability to maintain her relationship with Othello.
It is this latter quality that Sowa considers one of Desdemona’s greatest strengths, even as it contributes to her tragedy. In the case of trying to reinstate Cassio, she asserts that Desdemona’s decision is not only for her own friend’s sake, but also for her husband’s:
I think that in most of that second day she’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with the man she loves, and trying to do her best to make sure that he’s got the people he needs around him, and I think that she truly believes Cassio is an important part of his team. And so her pleading for Cassio is, yes, partially because she adores Cassio, but also because I think she knows that in war, you need your best men around you. And so, ultimately, she’s always thinking about Othello’s well-being, and it just hits home even more for me the maturity of their love [...] And I think that’s the tragedy of it: you see these people who are so good for each other, so in love, and how one little thing can ruin it all.
Sowa has Desdemona begin her campaign with a cheerful determination; she playfully interrupts Othello as he attempts to work, embracing him and sitting on his lap, all for the purpose of making his job easier later on. It progresses quite effectively until Iago begins to interfere. Unlike his interactions with Othello, Roderigo, and Cassio, Iago doesn’t even try to manipulate Desdemona directly – not likely to be a winning prospect, given the outcome of their previous encounter – but instead manipulates the situation to turn this eloquence and devotion to her husband against her.
Even as the situation grows increasingly disturbing, Desdemona continues her quest to remedy it. After all, her persistence has always paid off in the past, and she has no reason to suspect that someone is directly sabotaging her methods. All her considerable resources are devoted to resolving the situation with her husband:
[...] If you’re in love with somebody, head over heels and married, I just think you do what you can for that person. And you don’t think of it as a sacrifice, you think of it as what you’re doing to make that person happy. And I’m not saying that she dies because that’s what makes him happy. Certainly at least the way I interpret it, she fights to the very end. But there’s also a reason why she doesn’t just leave that room [...] right after he says, “I’m going to kill you.” They have a full scene, and I think the thing that keeps her there, that keeps her fighting until the end, is that she believes if that she can just figure out what’s wrong, she can fix it.
The Desdemona who so confidently defended herself from her father, her peers, and Iago is not going to back down from her husband when so much is at stake. She fears for her reputation and her personal safety, but prizes one thing above all: “his unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love.”
When her words fail to convince Othello, Sowa’s Desdemona still fights back: her death is brutal and violent, but she struggles against it until the end. Her final lines to Emilia exonerating Othello of her death when she briefly revives have been cut, a change that altered Sowa’s perspective on the play:
You know, at the beginning of the process I really wanted to keep in her coming back to life moment, because I just felt that it was important not only for Desdemona, but also for Othello’s journey. But I guess what I take away from the cut that we have is that I really do go out fighting tooth and nail, and I think especially the way that we’ve staged that last scene, I don’t know how I would come back from it.
The emphasis of Desdemona’s death shifts from a final attempt to save Othello from himself to her own unfinished vindication, though it accomplishes that same goal: Othello does not begin to doubt his convictions until Emilia breaks her silence to defend Desdemona’s honor, and reveal Iago’s perfidy, with the same conviction Desdemona herself once possessed. When Iago stabs her in the back to silence her, her own dying lines (‘O, lay me by my mistress' side!’) are cut as well, though we hardly need them to know whose side she takes. These brave and articulate women are literally silenced before their time; the only thing able to keep them from defending themselves and their loved ones is death.
Though Othello (c. 1603) was written after Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598), the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre chose to open it first. In terms of the plot, this is an obvious choice: for audiences who see both productions, the stakes are automatically raised in Much Ado when they are aware of just how wrong things can go. (It also allows for a chance to leaven the heavy mood of Othello with Much Ado’s music, humor, and happy ending.) For Lauren Sowa, though, this order could have potentially offered some problems: how does one do justice to a new character when she plays an almost identical role, with less stage time, and without as many obviously compelling qualities?
Next: The Virgin Knight of Much Ado About Nothing (Part 2 of 2)