Shakespeare, in his play: Othello, explores the multifaceted nature of relationships during his time period and what causes them to fail. The objective of this research paper will be to explore modern day marriage and its shortcomings and note how Shakespeare’s examples in Othello reflect modern day divorce trends.
First we will start with a definition of marriage. Marriage is most commonly seen as a union between two partners in a romantic and companionate relationship. Although traditions and expected roles may change due to culture, marriage marks a strong bond between two people. However, in modern times, marriage as an institution has been withering and failing as divorce rates are at “historically high levels” (Utah State University). This can be caused by multiple factors that help determine the stability of a marriage.
One major factor seems to be a sense of commitment as Utah State University claims. In a poll conducted by the university, 73% of those who were asked claimed that a lack of commitment was a major cause of divorce. The university divides commitment into two fields: constrictive commitment and personal commitment. Constrictive commitment is usually caused by factors external to the marriage that effectively force someone to stay in that marriage. For example, kids, family, friends, finances, or religion. Personal commitment is regarded as a true desire to stay in the relationship. It is marked by an internal dedication to the relationship and willingness to sacrifice and compromise to better strengthen a bond. The lack of either of these forms of commitment usually results in instability and possibly divorce.
The American Psychological Association provides a slew of other possible reasons for divorce and ways to protect and “save” a marriage. The association claims that a healthy marriage is marked by healthy dedication and emotional dependence. In relationships that had a lack of gentleness in arguments and fights divorce was a more common outcome. Another mark of a failing relationship is that conversation tends to be focused on topics of maintenance rather than of “who are we, what’s our mission and what’s our legacy” (Miller, Anna). Conversation about hopes, dreams, and desires tends to increase the strength of a marital bond and a lack of it can lead to an unfulfilling relationship.
Many other factors are also correlated with a higher likelihood of divorce. These factors being education, socioeconomic status, education, age, premarital childbirth, religion, and insecurity. Both the APA and Utah State University concur that people with lower education tend to have more unstable relationships and higher rates of divorce. Both organizations also claim that marrying under 20 results in a drastically increased chance of divorce. However, the New York Times argues that a relative decline in divorce between marriages of younger people “stems from the fact that fewer people are getting married” (Miller, Claire), so the importance of age is questionable. Premarital childbirth creates a constrictive form of commitment because partners are effectively forced into a relationship. Religious inclination tends to create strong perceptions about marriage as a sacred bond and therefore creates a constrictive form of commitment that reduces the chance of divorce. Personal insecurity and lack of self-worth fosters severe instability in a relationship and creates dissatisfaction for one or both of the partners.
Many of these factors are reflected within the relationship between Shakespeare’s characters and most significantly in Othello and Desdemona’s relationship. This is reflected clearly in Othello’s questioning of Desdemona’s faithfulness:
DESDEMONA. Upon my knees, what doth your speech import? I understand a fury in your words, But not the words.
OTHELLO. Why, what art thou?
DESDEMONA. Your wife, my lord; your true And loyal wife.
OTHELLO. Come, swear it, damn thyself Lest, being like one of heaven, the devils themselves Should fear to seize thee: therefore be double damn’d: Swear thou art honest.
DESDEMONA. Heaven doth truly know it.
OTHELLO. Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell.
DESDEMONA. To whom, my lord? with whom? how am I false?
OTHELLO. O Desdemona! away! away! away!
DESDEMONA. Alas the heavy day! Why do you weep? Am I the motive of these tears, my lord? If haply you my father do suspect An inst
rument of this your calling back, Lay not your blame on me. If you have lost him, Why, I have lost him too.
OTHELLO. Had it pleased heaven To try me with affliction; had they rain’d All kinds of sores and shames on my bare head, Steep’d me in poverty to the very lips, Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes, I should have found in some place of my soul A drop of patience: but, alas, to make me A fixed figure for the time of scorn To point his slow unmoving finger at! Yet could I bear that too; well, very well: But there, where I have garner’d up my heart, Where either I must live, or bear no life; The fountain from the which my current runs, Or else dries up; to be discarded thence! Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads To knot and gender in! Turn thy complexion there, Patience, thou young and rose-lipp’d cherubin,— Ay, there, look grim as hell! (4.1.157-158).