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In William Shakespeare’s tragic play Othello we see a very exceptional woman in the person of Desdemona, wife of the general. She, as Cassio says, is a “paragon” of virtues, unlike the other female characters in the drama.
H. S. Wilson in his book of literary criticism, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, discusses Desdemona’s entry into the Moor’s life:
But Othello had not known Desdemona long; he had little knowledge of women in any case; his military life had left scant time for cultivating their society or studying them, before he met Desdemona; and there was a bitter modesty in the man, who thought it quite possible that, for all his greatness and his romantic past, a young girl like Desdemona might hold him but a passing fancy. (64)
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.
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 daughter.
Entrusted to the ancient’s care and that of his Emilia, Desdemona arrives at the seaport of Cyprus. 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.
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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 self: “What wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?” Strong and determined, 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.”
Once that her husband has safely arrived on the island and has 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. Angela Pitt in “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies” comments on Desdemona as the ideal wife:
Handbooks of the period explain in some detail what is required of the ideal wife, and Desdemona seems to fulfill even the most conservative expectation. She is beautiful and also humble:
A maiden never bold
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself. (I.iii.)
Her concern for Cassio shows her generosity, for she will intercede for him with Othello. (44-45)
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.
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 [. . .] . (3.3)
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.” 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. Francis Ferguson in “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other” describes how Desdemona is manipulated here by the evil Iago:
During Act IV Desdemona also acts the very part which Iago had devised for her. She insists yet again (Act IV, scene 1) that Othello pardon Cassio, which is “fire and brimstone” for Othello. Thus she blindly forces the Moor to see Iago’s nightmare in her (Act IV, scene 2), “a cistern for foul toads,” as Othello cries,
there where I have garnered up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life,
The fountain from which my current runs,
Or else dries up. (136)
When the Moor 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. 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:
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 relentlessly accuses her. She requests: “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)
In her book, Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, Maynard Mack comments on the heroine’s final song:
Here time present, in which Desdemona speaks and sings, and time future, in which we know she (like Barbary) is to die from an absolute fidelity to her intuition of what love is and means, recede even as we watch into a lost time past, when Desdemona had a mother and all love’s agonies and complexities could be comprehended in a song. (132)
Desdemona speaks with Emilia on that fateful night. Robert Di Yanni in “Character Revealed Through Dialogue” examines this dialogue and finds that it reveals the total innocence of the heroine (122). At the end of her conversation with Emilia, Desdemona experiences a mysterious premonition:
Lay on my bed my wedding sheets: remember;
And call thy husband hither. (4.2)
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. In Scene 2, he awakens his wife, who is asleep in bed. Desdemona’s concern is for her husband, whose emotions have disfigured his appearances: “Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?” 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 – but Othello refuses, and immediately suffocates her. When Emilia soon comes upon the scene, 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 upon the arrival of Iago, Emilia publicly accuses him of lying and of murder. 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.
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 [. . .]. (221)
Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar in “The Engaging Qualities of Othello” comment on the demise of Desdemona and the end of the ancient:
Desdemona is warmhearted, tender, faithful, and much in love with her husband. No thought is further from her mind than the infidelity that Iago suggests to Othello. The suspense of the play increases as we watch Iago subtly poison Othello’s mind and witness Desdemona’s bewilderment, despair, and ultimate death, and this suspense is retained until the last lines when the spectator is left to imagine the tortures awaiting Iago, who is dragged off the stage to judgment.(129)
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.
Di Yanni, Robert. “Character Revealed Through Dialogue.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Literature. N. p.: Random House, 1986.
Ferguson, Francis. “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Shakespeare: The Pattern in His Carpet. N.p.: n.p., 1970.
Mack, Maynard. Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Pitt, Angela. “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Shakespeare’s Women. N.p.: n.p., 1981.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.
Wilson, H. S. On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1957.
Wright, Louis B. and Virginia A. LaMar. “The Engaging Qualities of Othello.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Introduction to The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare. N. p.: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1957.