Nancy Glass Hancock

My research on the evolution of certain Shakespearean women—from textual imagery through various types of iconography to the visual imagery of film—is represented by "Picturing Desdemona: Verbal Imagery, Iconography, and Screen." Two questions are central in my research. First, what happened to the spunky early modern feminist who is pictured in Shakespeare's words with a sharp appetite for adventure of many types? Second, what has caused the public—scholars and non-scholars alike—to polarize interpretations of Desdemona, imagining her figuratively as either black or white, totally wanton or totally saintly? What is clear at this stage of my ongoing research is the impact on perceptions of Desdemona perpetuated through various types of visual representation, with the representation reflecting the ideology—and usually the technology—of its time. Woodcut, engraving, drawing, painting, lithograph, photograph, stage production including opera, film including video—all are part of the visual record of Desdemona. Each representation is an interpretation, many of which have clothed Desdemona in ill-fitting robes, making her either saint or whore, neither of which Shakespeare created in her character. Shakespeare did, however, create a woman so inscrutable that her father sees her as "a maiden never bold" while her husband sees her "appetite" as the curse of his marriage—even the curse of his soul. Thus, since her inception, she has been "unpinn'd"—even undressed completely by a 1995 film director, Oliver Parker—in a multiplicity of interpretations.

We have the visual record of four centuries of unpinning and undressing. However, as we approach the new millennium, we rarely have had Shakespeare's Desdemona stripped of cultural biases, especially those related to gender and race. It is the latter—racial bias—that sets Desdemona apart from other Shakespearean women being reinterpreted at the close of the twentieth century. This distinction—a volatile pairing of gender and race—makes Desdemona Shakespeare's unique heroine. Her depiction throughout iconography including film makes this point clear. In fact, Desdemona in iconography reveals more about societal ideology—racial and gender issues in particular—than about accurate interpretation of Shakespeare.

For the Folger presentation in December 1998 I condensed my research into four categories: (1) Shakespeare's verbal imagery associated with Desdemona in the nine scenes where she appears; (2) the iconographic record in two-dimensional art featuring Desdemona—often in conjunction with that of Othello since her record tends to emphasize cultural and racial differences between the two; (3) observations from actress and audience reflecting visual aspects of performances, including derivatives such as opera; (4) video clips of the crucial "handkerchief" scene from five twentieth century performances, emphasizing visual differences in how the handkerchief and Desdemona are parted and how that parting affects her innocence or culpability. Interestingly, the record in two-dimensional iconography reveals more similarities in how Desdemona has been portrayed while the record on film and video reveals more differences. However, these differences tend to be based on heavily edited scenes and especially interpolated scenes imagined by a director rather than on scenes created textually by Shakespeare. The wedding night sequence in the Parker film with Laurence Fishburne and Irene Jacob is a prime example of an interpolated scene replacing the original text. Parker omits much of the dialogue from Shakespeare that presents Desdemona's sexuality; yet he includes several imagined encounters that go far beyond Shakespeare's text.

Nicholas Rowe's 1709 illustrations of Shakespeare, accepted as the first representation in iconography of the plays, begins what other visual examples continue: representation of the society from which the illustration comes being primary while representation of the play and its characters is secondary. Rowe's frontispiece for Othello depicts an Othello who might be a black George Washington in Colonial hairstyle and dress, his tricorne on the table beside the bed where a fair-haired Desdemona fearfully clutches the bed skirt. Other trends appear throughout the subsequent iconographic record:

* Patriarchal attitudes reflected in the greater number of illustrations of Othello and other male figures predominating over illustrations of Desdemona and other female figures.

* Desdemonas whose postures and features follow a stereotypical pattern: victimization, subservience, passivity, blondness, femininity, daintiness. [Note: The latter is particularly interesting since the prologue written to accompany Francis Hayman Engravingthe first performance of Othello with a female as Desdemona (Dec. 8, 1660) points out the absurdity of some of the earlier male Desdemonas: "With bone so large, and nerves so incompliant, / When you call Desdemona, enter Giant."]

* Emphasis on Desdemona's attraction to Othello's otherness: dark complexion, exotic clothing featuring turbans and plumes, military accompaniments especially swords, armor, and other weaponry.

* Contrasting postures in depictions of Desdemona and Othello together: his judgmental stance, sometimes with finger pointing to heaven, paired with her penitent position seated, lying, or kneeling on a lower level than his, her hands clasped or folded as for prayer.

* Variation in design and arrangement of Desdemona's clothing especially at the neckline, either featuring a decolletage—sometimes revealing bare breast in the death scene—or an exceptionally high, concealing, close-fitting neckline.

* Effective use of light in the death scene—not Josiah Boydell Engravingonly for emphasis of dark and light skin but also suggestive of ethereal light either emanating from Desdemona or enveloping her from some inscrutable source.

* Preference for certain scenes: Desdemona listening raptly while Othello recounts his adventures (Brabantio often present); Desdemona and Othello's greeting at Cyprus; Desdemona spurned and warned by Othello to admit her sin; Desdemona preparing for bed (often pictured with Emilia); Desdemona's death scene.

In film and video, some societal ideology is evident. However, since film is limited to about one-fourth of the time span of the total iconographic record, differences such as clothing and hairstyle are less important. The potentially volatile pairing of gender and race still exists. Many American and British films use contrasting skin color as a given. Films directed by Orson Welles (1951), Laurence Olivier (1965), and Jonathan Miller (1981) create the contrast with makeup (Miller less so than Welles and Olivier). Oliver Parker (1995) chose an African-American Othello; however, through various cinematic techniques, Parker's Othello is almost evenly-matched in skin tone with Desdemona during the scenes where his nobility is evident. However, the more Othello is poisoned by Iago's words, the darker his skin appears. In the death scene, Parker gives us a visual reminder of "the beast with two backs" as Othello's dark skin and clothing envelope Desdemona's fair skin and white clothing. Perhaps the newest Othello—with Patrick Stewart playing the title role as a white man opposite Patrice Johnson's black Desdemona among an almost all-black cast—is the most inventive treatment of the racial issue in stage performance to date. A video of this achievement—should such a video appear—would make a fine addition to twentieth century Othello's.

A picture is still worth a thousand words, especially in our age of visual culture. A recent review of the 1999 Star Wars film proclaimed that what is important in the Star Wars saga is the look—the visual identity. We recognize our world—or Luke Skywalker's world—or William Shakespeare's world—by its iconography. Desdemona is a character who has acquired as much meaning through pictures as through words. Our perceptions of her have been formed through words but also through visual representations in iconography, on stage, and on screen. Future directions for my research include prompt books and additional commentary from actresses and audiences, analyzing visual elements in stage productions and their reception by audiences—all of which continues to influence the look of Desdemona's visual record and our perceptions.

Top: Othello, Act III, Sc. 4. F. Hayman Inv. H. Gravelot Sculpt., n.d.
Bottom: Othello, Act V, Sc 2. From the painting by Josiah Boydell; Engraved by Willm. Leney, 1803.

Parallel Texts: Shakespeare Publishing History
Visual Poetics
Approximating Early Modern Art: An Accommodation
Everyday Shakespeares: Confronting Othello at the Mall
Picturing Desdemona: Verbal Imagery, Iconography, and Screen

Digital Media/Film & Video/Stage Production/Printed Media