William Shakespeare’s play Othello touches upon issues like race and sexual expression. In the first moments of the play, we learn that Othello, a Moor, or African, married the young, white Venetian Desdemona. Issues arise with rumors surrounding Desdemona's chastity and the consummation of the marriage. These issues can best be understood by focusing on the culture of wedding sheets and their constant appearance in the play. This highlights the difficulty of the marriage and the ironic result of the end of their marriage.
Othello’s marriage is contested by Brabantio, Desdemona's father. The difference in age and race is stark, and for Brabantio, this makes it difficult to prove that the marriage is consummated. Iago even insults Othello by calling him an “old black ram” (1.1.97). Additionally, in traditional England, a marriage ceremony concluded with the bedding ceremony in which the married couple would consummate the marriage. Traditionally, “friends of the bride and the groom, the mothers and other women in the community, and even the priest who blessed the bed” would be involved (Marriage Bed). Unfortunately for Desdemona and Othello, this did not happen on their wedding night as they married in secret. The marriage was, in a way, not complete, and this creates tension between Othello and Desdemona. At this time, “all that was required for a valid marriage in the Tudor period was a mutual promise to wed and consummation” (Mason). Furthermore, the bedding ceremony concluded with all of the members in the ceremony checking the wedding sheets and “if suitably blood-stained, ecstatic family members [would] take it on a tour to display it. An absence of blood could see the woman divorced by her new husband and disowned by her family” (The Historic). Later in the play, Desdemona says, "Lay on my bed my wedding sheets: remember” (4.2.122). She wants to save the marriage and in order for this already difficult marriage to be made official, the sheets need to be stained. The bare, white sheets are a reminder of the problematic marriage and also contrast Othello’s skin color. At the climax of the play, Othello strangles Desdemona among their wedding sheets. This occurs, in part at least, due to Iago’s manipulation of Othello’s thoughts. He manages to convince Othello that Desdemona is not a virgin by saying, “She did deceive her father, marrying you”(Othello 3.3.238). This upsets Othello and it is through Iago’s prompting that he decides to kill her. Instead of finding out the truth about Desdemona, he acts rashly and kills her on their bed, on their wedding sheets. Their marriage ends in the place where it was supposed to become official. If Othello believed his wife and remained composed, they would happily be together. In conclusion, the wedding sheets display the instability of the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. Usually an artifact of important significance in sixteenth-century England, it causes turmoil and leads to death, instead of the creation of new life. The wedding sheets were the last chance of saving their marriage, and instead they mark where it ended.
Works Cited: “Marriage Bed, Rituals Of.” Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History, Encyclopedia.com, 20 Nov. 2019, https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and- maps/marriage-bed-rituals.
Mason, Emma. “Tudor Women: What Was Life like?” HistoryExtra, 16 Oct. 2019, https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/tudor-women-what-was-life-like/. Shakespeare, William, et al. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017. “The Historic Tradition of Wedding Night-Virginity Testing.” Topics, 16 Jan. 2018, https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/relationships/article/2018/01/10/historic-tradition-wedding-night-virginity-testing.