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William Shakespeare, in his tragic drama Othello, creates a most exquisite character in the person of Desdemona. Her many virtues clearly require that she be given detailed consideration by every Christian member of the audience.
David Bevington in William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies describes the depth of virtue within this tragic heroine:
We believe her [Desdemona] when she says that she does not even know what it means to be unfaithful; the word “whore” is not in her vocabulary. She is defenseless against the charges brought against her because she does not even comprehend them, cannot believe that anyone would imagine such things. Her love, both erotic and chaste, is of that transcendent wholesomeness common to several late Shakespearean heroines [. . .]. Her “preferring” Othello to her father, like Cordelia’s placing her duty to a husband before that to a father, is not ungrateful but natural and proper. (221)
Blanche Coles in Shakespeare’s Four Giants interprets the protagonist’s very meaningful four-word greeting to Desdemona which he utters upon disembarking in Cyprus:
Othello’s four words, “O, my soul’s joy,” tell us that this beautiful Venetian girl has brought great joy, felicity, bliss to the very depths of his soul. This exquisitely beautiful love that has come to a thoughtful, earnest man is indescribably impressive. For him it is heaven on earth. And all the while, almost within arm’s length, stands Iago, the embodiment of evil, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden. (87)
In Act 1 Scene1, Iago persuades the rejected suitor of Desdemona, Roderigo, to accompany him to the home of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, in the middle of the night. Once there the two awaken him with loud shouts about his daughter’s elopement with Othello. In response to Iago’s vulgar descriptions of Desdemona’s involvement with the general, Brabantio arises from bed and, with Roderigo’s help, gathers a search party to go and find Desdemona and bring her home. The father’s attitude is that life without his Desdemona will be much worse than before:
It is too true an evil: gone she is;
And what's to come of my despised time
Is nought but bitterness. (1.1)
So obviously the senator has great respect for his daughter, or at least for the comforts which she has afforded him up the beginning of the play.
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that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea's worth. (1.2)
Once that Brabantio has located Othello, the father presses charges publicly in order to have Desdemona returned:
To prison, till fit time
Of law and course of direct session
Call thee to answer. (1.2)
The proceedings which take place before the Duke of Venice cause the father to permanently lose his daughter, mostly due to Desdemona’s own fluent presentation of her point of view in the city council chamber. This results in Brabantio’s virtual disowning of her and not allowing her to live in his house while Othello’s campaign against the Turks in Cyprus is in progress. Thus it would seem that Desdemona has been living her life with a father who is primarily interested in self and less in Desdemona. And yet she has emerged unscarred psychologically, and capable of deep love for Othello.
Entrusted to the ancient’s care and that of his Emilia, Desdemona arrives at the seaport of Cyprus. While waiting there for Othello’s ship, she grows tired of Iago’s derogatory comments directed at his wife, and she quite matter-of-factly states her mind: “O, fie upon thee, slanderer!” and even directs Iago’s focus off of Emilia and onto her ownself: “What wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?” Her total forthrightness and courage show her to be the daughter of a senator! She continues to critique the ancient’s answers to her questions: “These are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh i' the alehouse” and “O heavy ignorance! thou praisest the worst best.” She is not fearful or reticent in the least.
Once that her husband has safely arrived on the island and disembarked, she greets him publicly, and later responds before the crowd to his loving address to herself:
The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase,
Even as our days do grow! (2.1)
She is showing herself to be a most wise and feeling wife. It is this tenderness that Cassio appeals to after Iago has entangled him in an imbroglio with Roderigo and Governor Montano, which leads to his dismissal by the general: “Be thou assured, good Cassio, I will do / All my abilities in thy behalf.” Her tenderness and willingness to help those in need will be a major factor contributing to her death.
Both Desdemona and Othello are naïve in their innocence vis-à-vis the depraved cunning of the ancient. Iago seems to manipulate them both at will, as well as his own innocent Emilia, who unsuspectingly gives over to her husband the critical piece of evidence that clinches the accusation of Desdemona’s faithlessness in the eyes of Othello. When the decorated handkerchief is exploited to the fullest by Iago, and supplemented by concoctions of his evil imagination, then Othello is ready to kill, not only his wife but also her supposed lover, Michael Cassio. The various subplots all serve to highlight and make possible the climax of the drama – the suffocation of Desdemona by the deceived Moor.
Meanwhile, Desdemona is aware of the deterioration in Othello’s attitude and shows considerable concern:
Something, sure, of state,
Either from Venice, or some unhatch'd practise
Made demonstrable here in Cyprus to him,
Hath puddled his clear spirit: and in such cases
Men's natures wrangle with inferior things,
Though great ones are their object. (3.3)
The grief that Iago creates in the minds of Desdemona and Othello is incalculable. Iago produces a circle of victims in the play, while Desdemona tries unsuccessfully to produce a circle of loving friends around herself. They are antitheses of each other.
Even after the arrival of Lodovico from Venice to recall the general and to leave Cassio in charge of Cyprus, Desdemona still pleads her case on behalf of the fallen Cassio:
Cousin, there's fall'n between him and my lord
An unkind breach: but you shall make all well. (4.1)
The omniscient audience is aware that her generous concern for the former lieutenant is only infuriating the Moor; their hearts go out in sympathy to the unfortunate wife. When he calls her “Devil!” and strikes her in the presence of Lodovico, she retains her cool, does not rant and rave, but quietly responds, “I have not deserved this,” and weeps. The audience’s reaction is Lodovico’s: “My lord, this would not be believed in Venice, / Though I should swear I saw't: 'tis very much: / Make her amends; she weeps.” Othello, his thinking skewed by the depraved, cunning input from Iago, expresses his sentiments that her tears are not sincere:
O devil, devil!
If that the earth could teem with woman's tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.
Out of my sight! (4.1)
Representing the audience once again, Lodovico says, “Truly, an obedient lady: / I do beseech your lordship, call her back.” When Othello summons her, she answers respectfully, “My lord?”
To the Duke’s representative Othello is quick to acknowledge Desdemona’s virtues:
Ay; you did wish that I would make her turn:
Sir, she can turn, and turn, and yet go on,
And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep;
And she's obedient, as you say, obedient,
Very obedient. (4.1)
The general questions Emilia, who adamantly supports the consistent virtue of Desdemona:
I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest,
Lay down my soul at stake: if you think other,
Remove your thought; it doth abuse your bosom.
If any wretch have put this in your head,
Let heaven requite it with the serpent's curse!
For, if she be not honest, chaste, and true,
There's no man happy; the purest of their wives
Is foul as slander. (4.2)
Regardless of the excellent testimony on behalf of Desdemona, Othello’s mind has been so brainwashed by the evil Iago that the general cannot admit any other opinion of her than that implanted by his ancient. So he relentlessly accuses her, “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell.” Quite innocently, Desdemona suspects that Othello’s rage is rooted in his recall (possibly motivated by Brabantio):
Alas the heavy day! Why do you weep?
Am I the motive of these tears, my lord?
If haply you my father do suspect
An instrument of this your calling back,
Lay not your blame on me: If you have lost him,
Why, I have lost him too. (4.2)
Failing to find a reason in this, she openly requests the reason of Othello: “Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed?” His naming of her as “strumpet” elicits a pious response:
No, as I am a Christian:
If to preserve this vessel for my lord
From any other foul unlawful touch
Be not to be a strumpet, I am none. (4.2)
Always at her side, metaphorically speaking is the faithful but not extremely bright friend, Emilia: “Alas, what does this gentleman conceive? / How do you, madam? how do you, my good lady?” In an exchange between these two ladies, Desdemona experiences a mysterious premonition:
Lay on my bed my wedding sheets: remember;
And call thy husband hither. (4.2)
Before dismissing Emilia on the last night of her life, Desdemona stands firm on her virtuous intentions, whereas Emilia is willing to compromise hers: “I should venture purgatory for't.”
In Act 5, Cassio’s screams after being wounded by Roderigo spur the general to execute his part of the bargain with his ancient, namely the execution of Desdemona: “The voice of Cassio: Iago keeps his word.” In Scene 2, Othello awakens his wife, who is asleep in bed, and shows concern for her spiritual state before he executes her: “If you bethink yourself of any crime / Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace, / Solicit for it straight.” Desdemona’s concern is for her husband, whose emotions have disfigured his appearances:
Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?
Some bloody passion shakes your very frame:
These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope,
They do not point on me. (5.2)
When the Moor confesses his intention to kill her, she puts spiritual concerns in the forefront before even her very life: “Then Lord have mercy on me!” She denies his accusations one last time and requests but half-an-hour delay in her death – but Othello refuses, and immediately suffocates her. Shortly, Emilia comes upon the scene, and Desdemona revives just enough to tell her friend that she dies a guiltless death. Her final words are ones of kindness for Othello, “Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!” The general confesses to Emilia his act and why he did it – because of Iago’s testimony to Desdemona’s falseness. Emilia tells the general the truth, which is a contradiction of Iago’s elaborate scheme: “Thou art rash as fire, to say / That she was false: O, she was heavenly true!” And upon the arrival of Iago, she publicly accuses him of lying:
You told a lie, an odious, damned lie;
Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie.
She false with Cassio! (5.2)
Then she accuses him of causing murder: “And your reports have set the murder on.” Emilia’s stunning interrogation and conviction of her own husband as the evil mastermind behind the murder results in Iago’s murder of her. Gullible Othello, grief-stricken by remorse for the tragic mistake he has made, stabs himself and dies on the bed next to his wife, his sorrow being as deep as his love for Desdemona prior to Iago’s machinations.
Bevington, David, ed. William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare’s Four Giants. Rindge, New Hampshire: Richard Smith Publisher, 1957.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.