AN ILL-FATED WENCH
Gil Benbrook of Talkin’ Broadway writes of Amanda Renee Baker, our Winterfest Desdemona: “Baker vibrantly displays Desdemona’s suffering and confusion when confronted about her alleged indiscretion and you feel for her as the victim of her unfortunate circumstances.” Herbert Paine simply states she is “the Moor’s poised and loyal wife.” Other stage actresses of note have famously portrayed the Venetian princess, a “daddy’s girl”; one among them, Margaret Hughes, who may have been the first professional actress in England when on 8 December 1660, she stepped on the stage in her first performance in the role of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. It was produced by Thomas Killigrew and his new King’s Company at the Vere Street theater.
Helen Faucit embraced the role in 1839 and Ellen Terry did the same in 1881 at the Lyceum Theater in London. Peggy Ashcroft in 1930 was Paul Robeson’s Desdemona in Othello at the Savoy and in 1943 with him at the Shubert Theater in New York City was Uta Hagen. When Orson Welles was honored for his Othello at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952, Suzanne Cloutier was his Desdemona. Of interest to most of us might be that Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith was Desdemona for Lawrence Olivier’s Othello. More recently Laurence Fishburne in the role of the Moor played opposite Irene Jacob in 1995. And there is Hollywood and the film O (2001)…Julia Stiles played a tragic character reminiscent of Desdemona…the story line set in a high school.
Interestingly, “Disdemona” is the only character bearing a name in what is believed to be the source of Othello, Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio’s “Un Capitano Moro” in Gli Hecatommithi (1565). There is some debate as to how Shakespeare himself may have known of it and read it either from the Italian original or Chappuy’s 1584 French translation. Desdemona’s name in Greek means “”ill-fated, unfortunate”. And what close similarity it bears to Othello’s calling his wife an “ill-starred wench” when he becomes unnerved with suspicion and torn by his love for the woman. But Desdemona abides and climbs out of her victimhood, loving beyond her fate at the hands of her husband until the end.
Star-gazers and scientists, did you know that the moons of the planet Uranus are named for characters found in Alexander Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” and the plays of Shakespeare. Our very own Desdemona is one of its inner moons, according to researchers, who believe its dark surface is probably covered in carbon-rich material generally found on C-class asteroids.
Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.