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Very early in William Shakespeare’s play Othello, various kinds of conflicts come together and coincide. These include conflicts between individual persons and social traditions, conflicts between a father and his daughter, and even – potentially – conflict between husband and wife.
In Act I, scene 3 of the play, Brabantio comes before the Council of Venice to accuse Othello of having used magic to dupe Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona, into marrying Othello without her father’s approval. Othello disputes the claim, asserting that he and Desdemona fell genuinely in love with one another and that this mutual love explains their marriage. Desdemona herself is called, either to challenge or to confirm Othello’s account of their relationship. When she arrives, Brabantio speaks to her:
Come hither, gentle mistress:
Do you perceive in all this noble company
Where most you owe obedience?
Desdemona. My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter: but here's my husband,
And so much duty as my mother show'd
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.
When Brabantio asks Desdemona where she “most . . . owe[s] obedience,” he alludes to the social tradition that a child should be obedient to its parents. He implies that Desdemona is now in conflict with this tradition – that, by disobeying her father, she has also disobeyed a commonly accepted rule of society. Desdemona never denies the social tradition that a child owes a duty to its parents. Instead, she asserts another social tradition: that a wife owes a duty to her husband. She implies that if she rejects Othello, she will be in conflict not only with her husband but also with an important social tradition. Indeed, she implies that if her father insists that she reject Othello, he, too, will be in conflict with an important social tradition. Brabantio, realizing that his own logic has been turned against him, quickly if reluctantly agrees to let the marriage stand.
Later, however, Brabantio cannot resist the temptation to warn Othello that just as Desdemona has already come into conflict with her father and with a key social tradition, so she may one day come into conflict with Othello himself:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
It is precisely this kind of conflict that will later obsess Othello and lead him to kill the woman for whom he now professes such deep and undying love.
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