William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Othello, the moor of Venice. A tragedy as it hath been divers times acted at the Globe, and at the Black-Friers: and now at the Theatre Royal, by His Majesties servants. London, Printed for Richard Bentley, 1695. Henry N. Paul, Class of 1884.

In 1990, a spirited disagreement arose between Toni Morrison and her friend, theater director Peter Sellars, regarding the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s Othello. Sellars dismissed the play as having lost its significance over time, while Morrison maintained that it still held valuable lessons for contemporary audiences. In an effort to reconcile their creative conflict, they embarked on a collaborative project. Sellars would bring Othello to the stage, while Morrison would craft a response, Desdemona, elevating the tragic character of Othello’s wife from the sidelines to the forefront. Through Desdemona, Morrison sought to delve into untold narratives underlying the early 17th-century Shakespearean text.

Toni Morrison (1931–2019). Handwritten manuscript drafts of Desdemona, undated. Toni Morrison Papers.

In these early manuscript drafts, Morrison sets upon reimagining the subjectivity of Desdemona. While she is a foil, around which the action in Othello takes place, Desdemona is primarily voiceless in Shakespeare’s telling; her perspective hidden from view. Morrison sets upon portraying Desdemona as a fully articulated character; she provides a fullness and depth to Desdemona’s characterization and that of her female caretaker and companion, Barbary. Morrison imagines for Desdemona, a girlhood, a maternal relationship with her caretaker, and an afterlife. Desdemona is given language, with which she recounts the traumas of race, class, gender, and war, a discourse of hidden suffering and obscured oppression subsumed by her silence in Shakespeare’s telling. Morrison’s Desdemona is less constrained by male intervention and therefore forges her own shape instead.