Desdemona, guessing that she is about to die, prepares for her own death by singing the plaintive song,
THE EVOLUTION OF ETIQUETTE
Etiquette -- i.e. how to behave when in company -- is a relatively new thing dating back to the 15th and
16th centuries, the time of the Renaissance.
In the medieval world -- that era which preceded the Renaissance -- etiquette virtually did not exist.
People behaved instinctively, as children do. They belched if they felt like belching. They farted in public
if they desired to relieve themselves.
There were no rules for how to treat a lady. Men sulked publicly if they felt offended, or would launch into
fist fights at the drop of a hat. The stories of knights rescuing damsels in distress? It is far more likely
that the knights would put an unprotected damsel into distress!
This all changed during the Renaissance -- or, for England, the Elizabethan Age -- when suddenly men
became concerned about how they should be behaving when in public. To give them guidance, manuals
began to drafted on what manners were good and what was to be avoided.
The manuals examined almost every facet of life: from eating to drinking, how to speak, how to walk and
dress, how to behave in the presence of women. Men in high society now had something to guide them,
rules which they could follow meticulously.
The rules were first formulated in Northern Italy, in Venice and Milan. From there, Renaissance etiquette
slowly filtered across the length and breadth of Europe. It would take time, however, and sometimes even
centuries for the upper classes to change.
Indeed, during the Elizabethan Age, the English were generally regarded as uncouth, while the English
in turn viewed the Italians as fops.
Notice how Iago is highly critical of the way in which Cassio continually kisses his fingers when he speaks
to Desdemona. Iago thinks it stupid, and his viewpoint probably echoed that of the average Englishman.
Etiquette would also take ages to filter down to the lower classes of society, with the working classes not
being affected until the 19th century, perhaps even later. Indeed, even today, people of the lower socio-
economic class battle with the elementary rules of behaviour at formal gatherings like weddings, where
they still like to drown out anyone making a speech.
One finds this differentiation of manners very obvious in Othello. Desdemona and the Duke are
perhaps the most sophisticated. Brabantio's behaviour, on the other hand, was at times questionable in
that he allowed his instincts to lean towards revenge. Cassio knew the rules but possibly applied them
slavishly, while at times overdoing it.
Iago? Well, he was very much a law unto himself, although he appeared to know how to behave in the
presence of a lady. Note, for example, how he treated Desdemona with the utmost respect but, on the
other hand, treated his own wife in the most uncouth way. And Iago was a person who took revenge to
Emilia is almost typical of the lower cast, so much so that she is often referred to almost as if she were
a prostitute. At the same time, however, she was able to recognise poor behaviour in others, and
especially noted the intense jealousy which Othello exhibited.
Othello himself found it a problem to balance his own behaviour. When he was in Venice and everyone
about him was behaving to the book, he followed suit. When in Cyprus, on the other hand, and there were
few people to guide him, his etiquette slipped badly.
Notice his outbursts of jealousy even when there was little to provoke it -- typical of pre-Renaissance
behaviour. Observe his crassness when addressing his innocent wife about her apparently missing
handkerchief. And, of course, his unprovoked striking of Desdemona in full view of the gathered
In many ways, therefore, the play is all about Othello's descent from the status of a dignified man who
portrays all the expected etiquette of Venice. By the end of the play, however, he is behaving like an
uncouth medieval barbarian.
With the various levels of etiquette -- or lack thereof -- all around them, the sophisticated Elizabethan
audiences would have noticed immediately Othello's slide into pre-Renaissance depravity.
Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:
EMILIA: "I would you had never seen him!"
DESDEMONA: "So would not I my love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his cheques, his frowns --
Prithee, unpin me, -- have grace and favour in them."
- Show how Emilia's wish is in total contrast to Desdemona's. (4)
- Why is Desdemona still completely loyal to Othello even after he has abused her
"If I do die before thee prithee, shroud me
In one of those same sheets."
- Explain why Desdemona wants to be buried wrapped in "one of those same
"My mother had a maid call'd Barbara:
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her: she had a song of 'Willow;'
An old thing 'twas, but it express'd her fortune,
And she died singing it: that song to-night
Will not go from my mind."
- What is the purpose of singing a song at this critical stage of the plot? (2)
- Why does the song "Willow" come into Desdemona's head? What is its
DESDEMONA: "Hark! who is't that knocks?"
EMILIA: It's the wind."
- What does the exclamation, "Hark! who is't that knocks?" tell us about Desdemona's current
state of mind? (2)
Desdemona and Emilia's final conversation before Emilia leaves Desdemona to her fate reveals a marked
difference in the two characters.
- Can you show how this is so. Why is this? (6)