Race and Alabaster
Race and Alabaster
Othello and Desdemona’s marriage was doomed from the start. Even considering the racial nature of the marriage, his lack of a constant home, and the improper method of his courting, there is another reason why their marriage would never have worked. Othello’s label of Desdemona prevents him from considering her a person. He thinks of her instead as superior to himself in every way, to the point that she is a god. Her race, beauty, and status make her godly in his mind. Because Othello thinks of Desdemona as “Alabaster”(5. 2.5) he will never consider her capable of responding to his love.
Because Othello is at his wit’s end when he refers to her as “Alabaster”, he is speaking out of his heart. After Othello reads the letter from Venice, he begins to speak in less cohesive manner. For instance the line, “Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Isn’t Possible? Confess! Handkerchief! O devil! ”(4. 1. 42) contains none of Othello’s former eloquence. He begins to speak with word association, rather than in complete sentences.
For instance, the word “confess! ” brings up the word “Handkerchief!”, and “devil! ”. Because Desdemona, the handkerchief, and the sense of maliciousness were on his mind so much, he begins to express with abstract words and ideas instead of sentences. Although this makes his lines harder to read, they show us what he is constantly thinking of. Instead of clear and concise lines, they are a torrent of his true feelings. Therefore when he describes Desdemona as “Alabaster”, we can be sure it is his inner picture of her. Alabaster’s beauty gives you an idea about his feelings of bodily inferiority to her.
Alabaster is a naturally beautiful stone, used by ancient Egyptians and Chinese to make statues and vases. This word choice gives the reader a sense of his feelings of inadequacy to Desdemona. He is never said to be ugly, on the contrary, he is described as “far more fair than black”(1. 3. 291). He must have felt some sensitivity about his physical appearance. In contrast, he describes her face as “fair as Dian’s visage”(3. 3. 389), Dian most likely being the god of healing in Celtic mythology. This implies both beauty and health.
He then goes on to say “begrimed and black as mine own face”(3. 3. 390). Othello superimposes her clean and young white face with his grimy old black face. The fact that he believed her to be unfaithful with Cassio further proves his insecurity. Cassio is a clean white man with golden hair. Cassio is all of the beauty that Othello can not be, and is therefore able to provide something that he cannot. This makes Cassio a threat to Othello’s masculinity. Othello most likely gains this opinion of Cassio from his nonchalant attitude. When Cassio says “I never knew a woman love man so”(4.
1. 111) Othello immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is referring to himself and Desdemona. Othello is on the offensive with Cassio without any proof, simply because of his physical appearance. Alabaster’s smooth white surface illustrates the racial inferiority he feels to Desdemona. Race plays an enormous part in Othello’s relationship with Desdemona. Although he is an upstanding citizen and a good solder he is still unfit to marry because of his race. A reoccurring theme in the way that people refer to Othello is that of a great black beast.
He is often described as an “Old black ram”(1. 1. 87) or a “Barbary Horse”(1. 1. 110). There is a sense that he is animalistic, even though in real life he is sophisticated and civilized. This spiteful talk is a back-handed reminder that he is a moor. The constant inference that he is a beast may have caused him to believe it himself. Othello believes that Desdemona could not love an ugly animal like himself. This puts her sincerity into doubt when she says that she loves him. Alabaster is a rock, and can not return any feelings of love that Othello gives to it.
This is part of a feeling that Desdemona is something elemental and beyond him. For instance in the same speech he describes her as having “Promethean heat”(5. 2. 12), Prometheus being the god that stole fire for man. Therefore “Promethean heat” would refer to the element of fire in its purest form, something divine and primeval. He also says that her death should bring “A huge eclipse of sun and moon”(5. 2. 97). This paints her as something cosmic in scale, so large and important that the entire universe should be changed in her passing. Othello puts her on a different scale than himself.
When he dies he says only that “in your letters… [you should] speak of me as I am”(5. 2. 338). While he is normal, she is a cosmic and divine being, unfit to love a mortal like himself. This creates insecurity in Othello. He begins to ask how can a rock, or fire, or a star in the night sky love him? Because of his high view of her, he creates a complex of his own insignificance. From his point of view, Desdemona is unable to love him because she is too elemental to have emotion. Othello has, put simply, encased Desdemona in alabaster. He has formed an opinion of her that she is unable to break free of.
Because he has so strongly locked her into this state of mind he is unable to think of him in any other way. She is so high up on the pedestal that he puts her on that he is unable to see who she truly is. This is Othello’s failing. By making her too powerful, too divine, any minor fault is a glaring defect to her immaculate surface. Then at the first flaw, she becomes low and nothing, and he needs to return her to her former glory. He must “Quench thee… [and] again they former light restore”(5. 2. 9). He fails to see her love through her alabaster covering.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 16 December 2016
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