Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief shows us three women in search for an identity that is not their own. Desdemona, the most cared-for of these gals, yearns to be a “New Woman”- free to make her own way; Bianca, the liberated woman, aches to be a wife and grow a family with a husband; Emilia, the discontented wife, wants nothing more than to escape into the freedom Desdemona is granted by being of noble birth. Together they form a ring of cyclical discontent filled with negative judgement of themselves and each other; meanwhile the only support system they have is of the women they judge.
Many women today find themselves trapped in the same ring. Despite being the daughters of the original bra-burners, we still must fight hard to break molds and chose our own roles, especially regarding sexuality and career: What woman is free from scorn regarding the sexual choices she makes? If she chooses sex without emotional attachment, how many partners can she have before even her friends call her “Whore”? Conversely, what happens when we want to fulfill the traditional roles of wife and mother? Are we still feminists then? And what about those of us who want no relationships? Are we allowed to be happy partnering off with no one and seeking our own adventures by our own means? Of course the answers to these questions are dictated by whichever circle one finds herself in; still, the answer should be more clear.
I am fortunate enough (or crazy enough!) to be both directing Desdemona and playing Iago in Spicy Witch Production’s Othello. In both productions, I get to experience characters filling the roles that other people expect them to play (Iago plays the role to his success; Othello plays it to his demise). It has me thinking about how much of our identity is dictated by what others expect of us. If my mother expects me to be a wife, how important does it become to me that I fulfill that expectation? If a soldier is expected to be eternally stoic, when does he start believing he doesn’t actually experience emotions? Did I want to play with Barbies all the time because society told me I should like dolls and bright pink? (Barbies were really fun, so in this case it’s a toss up.) In our Othello, due to the all-female cast, we get to see all the characters as people, and not necessarily as men or women, which gives the audience the freedom to see more clearly how we don’t simply fill gender roles, we create them; we enforce them.
In Othello, we meet a Desdemona who fills all the roles of the angelic (or white) wife. She does only as she is commanded, she obeys her husband to the fullest, and her last dying breath is spent damning herself and commending herself to her “kind lord”. In Desdemona, we meet a woman who seeks the sexual freedom her male counterparts all have. She puts on one mask for her husband, and takes it off to reveal her true and (commonly described as) sinful desires when she is with her trusted girlfriends. She escapes her abusive relationship through the dark room of a whore house. With feelings removed from the sex she is having, she believes her sins are not that she is cheating on her husband, but that she has allowed herself to enter a relationship where she is not honored or loved. Her behavior is a learned one: in Desdemona, she nonchalantly notes, “All of the honest men I know are adulterers”; in Othello, it is Emilia who preaches the tune, “The ills we do, their [men’s] ills instruct us so.”
My love of Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief is that it holds up a mirror to our society today. It tells us, first and foremost, we must stop calling each other whore if we are ever to have the freedom we desire and deserve, to encourage each other to choose the path that is right for the individual and not necessarily the gender expectation, and to not assume the shoes one is envying are the easiest to walk in. If in leaving the show, the audience can have for a little more acceptance for the choices of others, I will be a happy woman. In Desdemona, this acceptance becomes a life or death situation. I believe that in real life, the call for acceptance is equally paramount.
Sarah LemanskiArtistic Director of Spicy Witch Productions