Friday, Nov 15, 4:00PM, 7191 HC White
“Desiring Othello: Race, Pity, and Petrarchism”
Talk by Dennis Britton,with generous sponsorship from the Anonymous Fund, the English Department Renaissance Colloquium, and the Center for Early Modern Studies.
In act 1, scene 2 of Othello, we learn that Desdemona’s feelings toward Othello are transformed from fear to love. Brabantio tells the senate that his daughter initially “fear’d to look on” Othello (1.3.98), but Othello’s tale of suffering allows Desdemona to pity him: “She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,/And I loved her that she did pity them” (1.3.167-68). Pity is thus the conduit that alters how Desdemona and Othello feel about each other. This paper explores Desdemona’s pity and love for Othello, and how and why Othello becomes desirable.I argue that Desdemona’s pity does not foreclose the import of Othello’s blackness on her feelings; in fact, her pity should be read as an expression of an English Petrarchanism that variously racialized male suffering and female pity. Othello becomes desirable to Desdemona—and also perhaps to the audience that, watching a tragedy, is supposed to experience the feelings of pity and fear—only when his blackness is able to be read as a mark of suffering. Othello suggests that the suffering black subject is a pitiful one; the pitiful black subject is a lovable, desirable one.
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