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Admirable Musicians: Women's Songs in Othello and The Maid's Tragedy Rochelle Smith Desdemona, Othello tells us in IVi, is "An admirable musician " who can "sing the savageness out of a bear."1 Earlier in the play Othello seems to ponder the significance of her musical talent , as though it will provide the key to her character: faithful wife or "super-subtle Venetian" (I.iii.358-59). He protests that there is nothing inherently wrong with musical accomplishments such as singing, playing, and dancing: "Where virtue is, these are more virtuous" (Ill.iii. 192); but his qualification reveals a deeply ambiguous response to female singing, a response explored more fully in the contemporary drama. In the following essay, I examine the way in which the convention of female singing operates as a characterizing device in some of the plays of the period. I argue that in Othello IV.iii, the scene in which Desdemona sings her willow complaint, Shakespeare draws on an association of female singing with female sexuality for his portrait of Desdemona . One of the willow song scenes most like Desdemona's is ILi of Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy, where Aspatia also sings a willow complaint. I suggest that in The Maid's Tragedy, Beaumont and Fletcher are not simply imitating Shakespeare but consciously revising his willow song scene in Othello. Their revision tells us much about Shakespeare's version. The tendency of Othello criticism to mirror the perspectives of the play's main characters is frequently noted. Carol Thomas Neely neatly divides critics into two camps: "Othello-critics" and "Iago-critics," and argues that both misunderstand the women in the play. Christopher Norris observes the general tendency of literary criticism to "repeat, in compulsive fashion, the acts of misreading exemplified by various, more or less deluded characters within the tale"; not surprisingly, he cites the criticism on Othello to illustrate his point.2 311 312Comparative Drama This critical tendency is particularly marked in discussions about Desdemona which either idealize her innocence and purity or emphasize her human frailty. A. C. Bradley's vision of a transcendentally pure, almost superhuman character—"simple and innocent as a child, ardent with the courage and idealism of a saint, radiant with that heavenly purity of heart"—continues even in the more contemporary criticism. Leslie Fiedler, for example, regards Desdemona as "a miracle of virtue." Arthur Kirsch writes that she "is one of the most elemental and numinous" of Shakespeare 's heroines. Marilyn French, calling Desdemona an "angel" and a "martyr," claims that she represents the "superhuman" moral level of the play. And Angela Pitt suggests that "perhaps it is easiest to make sense of her by seeing her as a symbol of purity."3 Yet even Bradley notices the discrepancy between the Desdemona he conjures up for us and the woman who defends her choice in marriage to the Senate in language both eloquent and passionate: That I did love the Moor to live with him, My downright violence and storm of fortunes May trumpet to the world. (I.iii.251-53) Bradley thus remarks "how astonishing this love and boldness must have been in a maiden so quiet and submissive."4 Desdemona's boldness in love, her frank sexuality, has elicited almost as much critical commentary. Jan Kott observes that Desdemona is the most sensuous of all Shakespeare's heroines: "Eroticism was her vocation and joy." Thus, he explains, "Desdemona is faithful, but must have something of a slut in her. Not in actu but in potentia. Otherwise the drama could not work, because Othello would be ridiculous." His reading makes Desdemona's sexual nature partly responsible for the tragedy, thereby supporting a cynical view like that of W. H. Auden, who predicts that "Given a few more years of Othello and of Emilia's influence and she might well, one feels, have taken a lover." Julian Rice, arguing that the tragedy is precipitated by Desdemona's general lack of knowledge of her own potential for evil, likewise suggests that Desdemona's character contains the potential for adultery. Thus he writes that Desdemona "shrinks from the reality of the whore within her, the potential whore...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 311-323
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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