Bianca is a minor character in Shakespeare’s play Othello. She works as an example of real and justified jealousy, as a foil in the play to the jealousy constructed by Iago in Othello’s imagination. Bianca is a prostitute who is in love with the character Cassio, accused of having an affair with Desdemona, Othello’s wife.
Cassio mocks Bianca’s love for him to Iago (a device Iago uses to pretend it is Desdemona who is being mocked); calling her a whore and laughing at how she wants to marry him and hangs around him, particularly describing a scene on the bay/harbour in Venice. Later on in the plot Iago plants Desdemona’s handkerchief on Cassio, who gives it to Bianca to copy. Jealous that the handkerchief might be a token from another woman, nevertheless Bianca takes the handkerchief, saying she “must be circumstanced”.
I have always found Bianca’s character fascinating. She doesn’t say very much in the play, but she reflects the angers and hurts of many of the characters, and the problematic status of women in this period and today, with the dichotomy of the whore/angel; what it means to love someone who doesn’t love you, and the nature of real and imagined jealousies.
He loves me he loves me not I sing to myself as I pull flower petals off the stem and fling them in to the sea; it is a pretty pose, don’t you think? I lose, and so I play tinker tailor soldier sailor with cherry pips and laugh to find my happy fate lies with the thief, because truly my heart has been thieved by this damn soldier, and I think both the flowers and the fruit are not lying.
He does not love me, I know that much, but I think he needs me, and that is something is it not, is it not, because for as long as I am needed then I can see him, and the more he sees me, then the more he will realise that he needs me and he will grow to love me. It is a fallacy I know but what else do I have to go on.
‘Are you ashamed of me?’ I asked him point blank one night, a night where he sat by my side and introduced me to no one and allowed me one touch on my knee as if to reassure me that he still cared. But behind the closed doors of his room then his hands move from my knees to send me shuddering and him short of breath.
‘Are you ashamed of me?’
For why this awful denial, this pretence that we are nothing but acquaintance, before the press of his body against mine filling me up with a love that I can never suppress. He told me no, of course not, why would I be, but just like my fantasy of his realisation of his necessity, it is a fallacy. He hates to be asked such questions because he wants to admit nothing. He refuses to recognise what we are, and when I try and say such things aloud he calls me brash and coarse, and I am forced to turn it in to a joke, so that I can be his monkey once more.
That is not love. Whatever he feels for me is more akin to hate than love. Something in him revolts from me, he hates the passion I inspire in him, I know it so well, for I am not the right kind, I scare him. He calls me monkey and gipsy and says the words are endearing, but I know his secret. He sees a wildness in me that is out of his field of control and I know that when I display the ecstasy that he brings in my bright face, he is somewhere inside recoiling in horror.
My eyes are too bright and my hair is too curled and my skin is too tanned and I know that to him I represent excess and lushness and an honesty that cannot be endured by the politesse that surrounds his world. So he denies me in front of all, and I strive against all my instinct and all that makes me what I am. I demurely accept his repulsion.
But why should I accept, my heart tells me angrily! I am who I am, I I I I I I say I over and over, me mi a me mia donna like a scratch across the grooves in my brain, repeating like a mantra to try and bring myself back in to this equation of two. Where am I to find myself as I allow him to take over all that it is that I love in myself, all the passion that makes me happy with what I have become, all the fire that he wants to reduce in to ice.
Sick of it! Sick of the men who take all they can from the flames in me so that they sputter and I can feel me being reduced, so that I have to keep repeating I I I to remind me, I need to remind me of me, before I lose myself in the mires of their lusts. I want my self back, I think. But it is too late now; I see that more and more. He has taken too much and I bend and flex to his will, to his want, so I keep quiet, even though at his revulsion part of me revolts, but I am learning to hush, to accept, to be silent.
For I have realised slowly that to win his love I have to change, and once the self in me is abandoned and left, then he will see the woman he loves, then it will be the time when we walk down by the canals, my hand in his, my head lowered – respectfully. But it is a struggle to keep my blood from rebelling against my heart. Angrily the little cells gang up on the muscle they are instructed to obey. She pumps hard to keep the rebels in line. Some day soon my blood will be tamed and I will be quietened as he wishes and then I will have learnt not to fight anymore. The fighting will be left to his sword.
Flushed with wine and with swaying steps I found him on the bay with his men and I laughed too loud and spoke too clearly, placing my arm around his waist and proclaiming him as my lover, yes! He is my lover and yes! I love him and yes! I have held this body so covered in finery bare and sweating in my own moist palms. My tongue was loose and I tried to press it against his, whilst he nervous and fidgety told me to run along, and his friends they laughed, they laughed at my dress slipping from my shoulder and called me a whore and pushed me hard against the wall as I struggled to find my soldier. They pushed me hard against the wall of the bay as I shouted out to him, but he had snuck away, ashamed of what I had done. Yet somehow still I love him.
So I sail on this boat to his side but I know what I will find there. For even in the heat of the dry arid landscape he will only see what is dry and arid, and no amount of sun will lighten the coldness of his attitude to me. As the bay laps against the shore, the ship tilts and heaves – as does my belly. The belly from which should come life, the life that he wants to take. I lie alone in this bed, in my cabin in the heat, and I see his face bending over mine. I toss my head against the covers and close my eyes to try and stop this imagining. For if I look at the sight of his face I don’t know what my mind will tell me I see there.
He words me girls, he words me, that I should not be noble to myself. I can’t let him go.
I arrive on this island, stepping off the boat with my head held high for a moment, a moment when I can allow myself some pride. Soon my head will duck down and I will be silent against his voice. I see the general’s wife and she is all that he wants me to be. All I hear is of her, of her and her beauty, of her and her sweetness, of her and her purity. And I think well whose fault is it that I am not so sweet, whose fault is it that I am rendered whorish, when I am no worse than she, really, I am no worse than she.
If it is a damned life I lead, well by god it is an honest one. We are both women and we both bleed, and if the breaking of blood was not spilled by a husband, then who is to say that that was my fault? And how dare he talk to me of this? He who values purity so highly has no trouble pressing hard against my breast, he who takes what he wants from this body he so despises and then blames me for not keeping to the story book version.
And I want to gnash my teeth and I want to shout and yell and riot on the street that he so drunkenly fell about on, and scream why won’t you be mine like I am yours, why do you refuse to see that I am no worse and she is no better than me. I think he loves her and I think of what I hear, and who knows if I think wrong, for I think I hear that the general thinks he loves her too. It’ll all end badly, I think I know that much.
He sends me to my room with this damn piece of cotton, this damn strawberry patterned token from some woman’s hand in to his, and I have to laugh, I have to pretend that I don’t mind. I flirt prettily of how I could not bear his absence, whilst I hide that to be from him is too painful for me to bear. But he thinks I came here because my slut body needs satiation. For god forbid that a woman like me could love him tenderly, for how can my lust for his body be matched with a love like that which I feel. What woman would love the feel of the body against her own, could feel passion and heat, love is not for the demure! Damn him and his refusals! Damn him and his denials! He will not be seen with me and I beg my foolish head to release me from this, I tell myself that I will not be seen with him, and I laugh, I laugh I laugh, for what punishment is that for him?
I must be circumstanced. I know that he laughs. And I know I won’t be his.
Though my heart aches to control my blood my passion rises. I shout and I yell and I accuse him of loving this other, this pretty lady who is so pure and so sweet, and after I cry and cry, for I know that so long as my head refuses to settle for that which he offers, he will never offer more.
Despite his nervous denials, I find him there in my room. The distress from all that is happening here is lined clearly on his face, and my heart peals out to him. It is love, I think. For like a woman to a child, to see him sad leaves me sad, and I wish his sadness on to me to carry as my burden. I press my palm against his cheek and call him my darling and my love and my sweet thing and all kind tones I can think of. He needs me you see. Some part of him must know this, for what else would explain his presence here in my room. The secret muscles kick in to action and lead him to my door. He has no conscious choice.
And he returns my caress with his hand stroking my cheek. But I know what is concealed in his hand. It is not love that provokes his action but desire, and if I am to be what he desires, then I have to accept what he holds there. That invisible paintbrush in his palm, from which he can create the picture of the woman he wants me to be, smears itself across my cheek, and replaces it with softer, rounder, dimpled ones that smile. His eyes see only his imaginings now, painted there for him to view with pleasure. Beneath his fancied art I am lost. The paintbrush he holds in his mind’s hand does its work, as his mind brushes away the reality of myself. My cheeks become pale and milky, and blush to a perfect rose that signals a brand new modest innocence. The sharpness of my cheekbones are filed down, and that angry flare that brightens what was once my face is subdued, the bristles rub out my eyes and colour them blue, drowning in that sea the lust and fire that resided there formally. He is perfecting me in the image he wants, and I let him do it, and I submit.
I lower my head so that he can wipe out the darkness from my hair and when I timidly rise my eyes to his I see in them reflected the one that he wants. His desire pushes me inside of myself, and I curl up there, out of sight, lying safe in my belly. And once he has hidden me, then he can take what he wants. As I lie covered deep down, the fresh brightness of my skin reflects a light that gives him the image he is pleased to see, the brightness blinds the dark flashes hidden under the painted blue so that they lie blank and white staring, and yet he doesn’t see the damage that this desire has, and me, still, I accept, I accept all because I tell myself over and over that if I accept then he will love me, he will have to love. How could he not do otherwise?
But still I rebel, my body won’t obey what he inflicts on it! I can’t control my passion, I can’t control my response, and I know that if I don’t try harder I will throw myself out from behind his new portrait and he will be forced to confront the truth in my face; I grit my teeth and order my blood to halt its rush, but my heart won’t listen, and the soft pink cheeks they won’t listen either, they melt away under the pressure of the fight in me, and although I strive to keep her hidden, I can see as I look in his eyes that she has escaped, and he rolls off, frustrated with me, for I could not succeed in keeping the picture of his happiness.
And I lie prostrate by his body and I know this is the end.
I know this is the end.