Unpinning Desdemona: The Movie
This film records a practical research experiment conducted at Shakespeare’s Globe in partnership with Globe Education in November 2008 and November 2009.
It began with a research question: can performance offer answers to textual problems? Thinking about the striking differences between the Quarto and Folio versions of Othello (printed only a year apart, in 1622 and 1623), ‘Unpinning Desdemona’ uses 4.3, the so-called ‘willow scene’, as a test case for answering that research question. Of the 160 lines of Othello that appear only in Folio, 50 are found in 4.3. They include the words of the willow song Desdemona sings while Emilia is undressing her and, a little later, Emilia’s frank comments on gender responsibility, ‘But I do think it is their husbands’ faults / If wives do fall.’ What accounts for their appearance in Folio and absence in Quarto?
In an important article in Shakespeare Quarterly (58:4, 2007, 487-508) , ‘Unpinning Desdemona’, Denise Walen proposes to ‘analyze original staging practices’ to argue that the ‘sizable and visible discrepancy between the texts must originate in conscious choice, either by Shakespeare himself or by the company’. ‘An examination of theatrical practice,’ she writes, ‘suggests that F prints a version of the play as performed at the Globe and that Q represents a separate, generally later, version that shows signs of the cuts made in F to accommodate performance at Blackfriars.’ In ‘Unpinning Desdemona (Again)’ (Shakespeare Bulletin, 28: 1, 111-132), Carol Chillington Rutter disputes Walen’s argument. She begins with the fact that both texts cue the unpinning: ‘Prithee, unpin me’ appears both in Q and F. She observes that whether 4.3 is played on the Globe or the Blackfriars stage, the meaning of the scene resides in the undressing. Shakespeare, she argues, writes 4.3 for the purpose of undressing Desdemona, and this business produces a scene that’s both sensational and stunning in its invention – hardly a scene that would bore audiences or that actors would cut.
Aiming to test her claims, Rutter took advantage of Globe Education’s ‘Practical Experiments’ programme, which allows academics access to the Globe stage in the winter months when the theatre is dark to explore problems of stagecraft in real time and space on a stage that replicates Shakespeare’s and in conditions approximating ‘original practices’. She invited Globe Associate Tom Cornford to direct a research project that would explore the mechanics of Othello 4.3. A pilot was conducted in November 2008, with Laura Ellison as Desdemona and Alice Barclay as Emilia. (A gallery of still images from that initial run-through can be found here. A year later, the experiment was repeated, this time putting – the practice on Shakespeare’s stage – men in the parts: Kelsey Brookfield (Desdemona); Jon Trenchard (Emilia). ‘Unpinning Desdemona: The Movie’ is narrated by Trenchard and Rutter and records the experiment. Using reconstructions of early modern dress, the movie demonstrates how the undressing was done. It tests Q and F, putting both texts experimentally on the Globe stage and in the Blackfriars space. It shows conclusively that Quarto is not an actors’ text.