Inside the Milberg Gallery: In the Company of Good Books - Morrison's Desdemona

The following is the final in a series of inside looks at the current exhibition in Princeton University Library’s Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library - “In the Company of Good Books: Shakespeare to Morrison.” 

Curated by Jennifer Garcon, Librarian for Modern and Contemporary Special Collections, Gabriel Swift, Librarian for American Collections, and Eric White, Scheide Librarian & Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Rare Books & Manuscripts, the exhibition celebrates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s “First Folio” and showcases Princeton’s diverse collection of English literature and many of the writers and readers who brought life to English literature around the world.

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's handwritten manuscript drafts of Desdemona, undated, on yellow legal paper

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

 

In the early manuscript drafts shown in the exhibition, 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.

Page one and cast list for “Othello, the moor of Venice,” as presented at the Theatre Royal in 1695

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.

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The exhibition is open through December 10, 2023 at the Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library. Please visit the website to view the gallery’s opening hours and for information about public tours, related programming, and how to visit.

Discover more through the companion digital exhibition.

Published December 8, 2023.

Media Contact: Stephanie Oster, Library Publicity Manager