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Toni Morrison

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Toni Morrison

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The story of Desdemona from Shakespeare's Othello is re-imagined by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison, Malian singer and songwriter Rokia Traoré, and acclaimed stage director Peter Sellars. Morrison's response to Othello is an intimate dialogue of words and music between Desdemona and her African nurse Barbary. Morrison gives voice and depth to the female characters, letting them speak and sing in the fullness of their hearts. Desdemona is an extraordinary narrative of words, music and song about Shakespeares doomed heroine, who speaks from the grave about the traumas of race, class, gender, war and the transformative power of love. Toni Morrison transports one of the most iconic, central, and disturbing treatments of race in Western culture into the new realities and potential outcomes facing a rising generation of the 21st century.

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Oberon Books


DESDEMONAMy name is Desdemona. The word, Desdemona, means misery. It means ill fated. It means doomed. Perhaps my parents believed or imagined or knew my fortune at the moment of my birth. Perhaps being born a girl gave them all they needed to know of what my life would be like. That it would be subject to the whims of my elders and the control of men. Certainly that was the standard, no, the obligation of females in Venice when I was a girl. Men made the rules; women followed them. A step away was doom, indeed, and misery without relief. My parents, keenly aware and approving of that system, could anticipate the future of a girl child accurately.
They were wrong. They knew the system, but they did not know me.
I am not the meaning of a name I did not choose.
        Small, uninhabited,
        envious of manhood,
        You are unworthy of the femininity
        that you haven’t recognized in yourself,
        that you distort,
        that elevates and softens
        your sad bitterness.
        Though it feels strong,
        beautiful and worthy,
        we see your confusion,
        sadness and hurt.
Mona, Desdemona
I exist in between, now: between being killed and being un-dead; between life on earth and life beyond it; between all time, which has no beginning and no end, and all space which is both a seedling as well as the sun it yearns for. All that is available to me. I join the underwater women; stroll with them in dark light, listen to their music in the spangled deep. Colors down there are more violent than any produced by the sun. I live in the roots and heads of trees. I rise in art, in masks, in figures, in drumbeat, in fire. I exist in places where I can speak, at last, words that in earth life were sealed or twisted into the language of obedience. Yes, my Lord. By your leave, Sir.
If you had been a man
you could hardly have achieved more,
accomplished more.
Manhood in itself is not a plus.
Womanhood never imagined itself as an obstacle.
“Girl” does not know how to be less than “boy”.
Together, they were chosen
to give meaning to life.
Is it a question of deciding
who is strongest?
Between He
who represents strength
and She
in whom all strength is rooted,
and is given meaning
and purpose?
Mona, Desdemona
Who is greater?
He, who claims supremacy
here below,
or She,
without whom there would be
no life
here below?
Mona, Desdemona
How can you confuse
finesse with obedience,
discretion with ignorance,
tenderness with submission,
seductiveness with prostitution,
woman with weakness?
Did you imagine me as a wisp of a girl? A coddled doll who fell in love with a handsome warrior who rode off with her under his arm? Is it your final summation of me that I was a foolish naïf who surrendered to her husband’s brutality because she had no choice? Nothing could be more false.
It is true my earth life held sorrow. Yet none of it, not one moment was “misery.” Difficulty, yes. Confusion, yes. Error in judgment, yes. Murder, yes. But it was my life and, right or wrong, my life was shaped by my own choices and it was mine.


My mother was a lady of virtue whose practice and observation of manners were flawless. She taught me how to handle myself at table, how to be courteous in speech, when and how to drop my eyes, smile, curtsey. As was the custom, she did not tolerate dispute from a child, nor involve herself in what could be called my interior life. There were strict rules of deportment, solutions for every problem a young girl could have. And there was sensible punishment designed for each impropriety. Constraint was the theme of behavior. Duty was its plot.
I remember once splashing barefoot in our pond, pretending I was one of the swans that swam there. My slippers were tossed aside; the hem of my dress wet. My unleashed laughter was long and loud. The unseemliness of such behavior in a girl of less than one decade brought my mother’s attention. Too old, she scolded, for such carelessness. To emphasize the point, my slippers were taken away and I remained barefoot for ten days. It was a small thing, embarrassing, inconvenient, but definitely clarifying. It meant my desires, my imagination must remain hidden. It was as though a dark heavy curtain enclosed me. Yet wrapping that curtain over my willfulness served to strengthen it.
My solace in those early days lay with my nurse, Barbary. She alone encouraged a slit in that curtain. Barbary alone conspired with me to let my imagination run free. She told me stories of other lives, other countries. Places where gods speak in thundering silence and mimic human faces and forms. Where nature is not a crafted, pretty thing, but wild, sacred and instructive. Unlike the staid, unbending women of my country, she moved with the fluid grace I saw only in swans and the fronds of willow trees. To hear Barbary sing was to wonder at the mediocrity of flutes and pipes. She was more alive than anyone I knew and more loving. She tended me as though she were my birth mother: braided my hair, dressed me, comforted me when I was ill and danced with me when I recovered. I loved her. Her heart, so wide, seemed to hold the entire world in awe and to savor its every delight.
Yet that same heart, wide as it was, proved vulnerable. When I needed her most, she stumbled under the spell of her lover. He forsook her and turned her ecstasy into ash. Eyes pooled with tears, she sang her loss of him, of love, and life.
I thought that strength was in unity.
I thought that having you at my side
could keep me far from my solitude
and my fears
Now, I feel lost.
Now I know that love
can be a source of evil.
I love you.
I forgive you.
I forgot my solitude for a while.
I wanted to be with you, forever.
My outstretched hands waiting to be filled
are empty of disillusion.
My melancholy thoughts are back.
But I still love the idea of love.
Her spacious heart drained and sere, Barbary
died. I mourned her so deeply, it trembled
me. And yet, even in grief I questioned:
were we women so frail in the wake of
men who swore they cherished us? Was a
lover’s betrayal more lethal than betrayal
of oneself? I did no...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Desdemona
APA 6 Citation
Morrison, T. (2012). Desdemona (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)
Chicago Citation
Morrison, Toni. (2012) 2012. Desdemona. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Morrison, T. (2012) Desdemona. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Morrison, Toni. Desdemona. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.