I'm enchanted by a sentence in Othello that is spoken by Desdemona's lady-in-waiting, Emilia. She's helping Desdemona to undress and the two women are engaged in informal chat. Desdemona, perhaps wondering why she had the misfortune to fall in love with exotic Othello, allows her mind to wander. It comes to rest on a countryman of hers, a good-looking man named Ludovico. And then her interlocutor Emilia praises this newly-invented handsome Ludovico in words that should compel every sentient being to gasp in astonishment and admiration.
About Ludovico, Emilia makes a remarkable claim: "I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip."
All that needs to be said is, wow! But let me try to explain why the sentence so transfixes me.
It's hyperbole, but not the ordinary hyperbole of largest or smallest or coolest or most awesome. It's a hyperbole beyond hyperbole. A lesser writer might have said, "I know a lady who would have walked a long way to make love to him." Not Shakespeare. For "a long way," Shakespeare give us "barefoot to Palestine"; for "make love" he offers "a touch of his nether lip." It's extravagant and wheeling.
A hike, barefoot, to the holy land, would have been a long and exacting journey. The evocative word "Palestine" infuses religion and sanctity into a sentence about sex and desire -- and therefore generates a love-longing that is as powerful, as silly, and as ill-planned as a crusade. And for what aim? Not even, for this mythical lady hiker, a big, zonking, mouth-filling kiss; simply for the merest contact of lips. No, not even lips, just one lip -- the lower one. It's an hyperbole of minimalism.
In the poetry that Shakespeare knew from childhood, it was men who would make the vows and undergo the trials to court their beautiful ladies. But this lovely sentence reverses the convention. It is, so to speak, Sadie Hawkins day in Venice.
Emilia elsewhere asserts that women have desires as strong as lovers of the other sex; here she demonstrates that women's love-longing can be as ridiculous (and as powerful) as men's.
And everyone who knows Othello will hear in the word "Palestine" an intimation of the violent act that once, many years ago, shook Aleppo.