In the throes of a relationship, it’s usually difficult to step back and see the larger picture. And this is doubly true when you’re deep in an unhealthy, noxious relationship. Perhaps that’s why it’s the unhealthy relationships that we can’t seem to tear ourselves apart from. Yet why is it that the most toxic relationships have to be the most passionate and exciting ones too?
Othello is a fictional character that’s perhaps best representative of lovesickness. It’s fair to say that a fear of the unknown instigated his downfall; in particular, a fear of Desdemona having a sexual desire that he wasn’t previously aware of. It’s a play in which “bonds” and the idea of binding figures prominently, and not coincidentally. Othello feels trapped and suppressed by his own toxic feelings of love and jealousy. He’s also constrained by his own mind, which he can’t control, and which is focused more on his wife’s cuckolder than on his actual wife. Desire in this play is portrayed as a virus—not unlike lovesickness. It’s regarded as a sign of weakness, and is thus rejected and projected outwards onto others.
I was recently urging a friend of mine to stay away from an ex—an ex she still, to this day, constantly thinks about despite ending the relationship over four years ago. It’s understandable that she would crave this type of relationship now; she has reached a point of maturity that, at times, feels monotonous, and so craves this addictive passion and lust she had for him. But it’s not a healthy passion or a healthy lust. And it’s relationships like these that lead to crazed, desperate states like the one Othello enters in Act 5. As Othello shows, these crazed states are often born of instability, of not having a grasp of yourself and your own individuality, and believing that your only worth as much as your partner says you are. It’s the controlling partners who have the potential to enter these states, partners who feel utterly lost and helpless when they realize that their boyfriend or girlfriend is a free-thinking, autonomous person too. They love whiteness, purity and naiveté as much as Othello does, but as soon as that whiteness has any traces of black—that is, as soon as Othello realizes Desdemona has desires of her own—a healthy love turns into a sickly one.
One might argue that Romeo and Juliet are in the throes of lovesickness too, but I disagree. Romeo and Juliet are simply in love. What leads them to kill themselves isn’t their own passions, desires, or jealousies, but external forces. Though their relationship ends equally as tragically as Othello and Desdemona’s, Romeo and Juliet’s love for one another never wavers and isn’t laced with toxicity.
In Bob Dylan’s “Love Sick” he sings, “I’m walkin’ through streets that are dead / Walkin’, walkin’ with you in my head…I’m sick of that love that I’m in the thick of it / This kind of love, I’m so sick of it.” The speaker here isn’t sick because he loves too much; on the contrary, he’s not afraid to love. Othello gets to a point, after fully realizing that Desdemona is an autonomous being, where he is simply afraid to love, and afraid of what might happen if he lets himself love too much. Bob Dylan sings, “I’m sick of love, I wish I’d never met you / I’m sick of love, I’m tryin’ to forget you. / Just don’t know what to do / I’d give anything to / Be with you.” Here, the speaker may have actually gotten hurt—like Romeo and Juliet, he is hurting because of something external. In Othello, Desdemona didn’t actually do anything to hurt Othello; Othello is only hurting because he can’t seem to make sense of his own, inner pain.