Desdemona character analysis
Do you see Desdemona as a moral heroine or as a victim of the violent repression of women under patriarchy, wherein women have come to acquiesce in their own submissiveness and regard it as noble rather than weak? Your interpretation should skim over her earlier appearances in Acts 1 and 2 and focus on her reactions to Othello’s jealousy in Acts 3, 4, and 5. Examine carefully all her remarks and work in interpretations of as many as you can.
Every society has its share of tyrants and victims. No matter what kind of society it is or what the circumstances are, there will always be those who are subdued by others. In a patriarchal society, women are largely the oppressed. They are expected to absorb a code of values set down by men. This state of affairs is reflected in literature. We often find writers, playwrights and poets echoing the various prejudices of their societies. William Shakespeare was one such playwright.
Shakespeare’s Othello was first performed in the year 1604. It is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. The play deals with issues that have been written about since time immemorial. It depicts, as the saying goes, the fall of the mighty. The death of Othello, the Moor of Venice, is perhaps one of the Bard’s most poignant stories.
The play is a tale of treachery, revenge, greed and over-reaching ambition. It depicts Iago’s machinations as he brings about Othello’s fall. In this play, not only did Shakespeare succeed in creating one of his most famous tragic heroes, but he also created one of his most charismatic and self-sacrificing heroines. Desdemona is perhaps one of the most misunderstood Shakespearean heroines. This is her story as much as it is Othello’s.
In Othello, Shakespeare created a society that is quintessentially patriarchal. Women have almost no voice and all their decisions are made for them, either by their fathers and brothers or their husbands. It is in such a situation that Shakespeare places his willful heroine, Desdemona.
It must be understood that Desdemona is vital to the unfolding of events within the play. She is the glue that holds the five acts together. She is the key to Iago’s success. In fact, it is her marriage to Othello that allows Iago to proceed with his plans. Very early in the play, Iago perceives the need to make Desdemona a very important pawn in his political games.
Desdemona’s character is not expendable. The entire play depends on her presence. She is not discarded by the playwright as in the case of Ophelia in Hamlet. Desdemona’s eventual death in Act V is a classic example of the way women are treated in patriarchal societies. Women must either submit to higher authority or suffer a fate similar to Desdemona’s.
Desdemona is one of Shakespeare’s most self-sufficient and strong-minded heroines. In the very first act, we find her making a choice. She chooses to marry Othello, a highly respected general in Venice. It is a decision made out of free will. A decision that eventually inspires Iago to sow the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind.
By making this choice, it could be said Desdemona unwittingly becomes the agent of her own destruction. She gives Othello a reason to suspect her. Iago reasons that Desdemona betrayed her own father by marrying Othello. Could she not pay Othello in the same coin? It does not matter to Othello that she chose him over her father. He is blinded by his rage.
Iago: She did deceive her father, marrying you;
And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks,
She lov’d them most.
Othello: And so she did.
Iago: Why, go to, then;
She that, so young, could give out such a seeming,
To seal her father’s eyes up close as oak,-
He thought ‘twas witchcraft,
Here Iago paints Desdemona as a scheming and ruthless woman. He uses Desdemona’s strong-minded behavior against her. He convinces Othello that she is up to no good. Iago makes uses of patriarchal prejudices against Desdemona. A woman such as her cannot survive in a society controlled by men like Iago.
The play itself begins with a controversy surrounding Desdemona. However, we see her only very late in the first act. Until then we only hear about her from the various men in the play, beginning with her father, Brabantio who is unable to believe that his daughter may have willfully abandoned him to marry Othello. As we read the play, it becomes evident that Desdemona’s purposeful behavior makes her a strong object of distrust. Not even her own father is able to forgive her for betraying him by marrying the Moor. In spite of all her apparent virtues, Othello too begins to suspect her of infidelity.
It is evident that all the men in play have preconceived notions when it comes to Desdemona. Initially Othello believes that she is both good and pure. He changes his mind quickly after his conversation with Iago. Iago of course knows her for what she really is. But he convinces Othello of everything that is contrary to Desdemona’s nature. Cassio also approaches Desdemona because he believes her to be generous and kind-hearted. It almost seems like Desdemona is merely a bundle of assumptions to the men around her. She is never given the opportunity to explain herself.
She is indeed a victim in this play. She becomes the object of suspicion first for marrying Othello and then for her generosity towards Cassio. It might be said that a woman like her will always find it easy to make enemies, especially in a patriarchal society.
In the second act, we see very little of her. We only see her for a short while after her arrival in Cyprus, where she listens to Iago hold forth on the many follies of women. Although, the entire conversation is held in the spirit of cheerful banter, Desdemona does not really offer to refute any of Iago’s claims. She playfully agrees with all of them. Iago’s speech in many ways is degrading to women, yet Desdemona does not challenge him. It may be seen as a tacit acceptance on Desdemona’s part of the patriarchal views of women
Iago: Come on, come on; you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.
She is in many ways the archetypal Shakespearean heroine. She is everything that is good, kind, tender, fair and happy, by her own father’s account. It could be said that with Desdemona, Shakespeare succeeded in creating a heroine who is both believable and likable. However, she is merely a means to an end. She is to Iago, what Miranda was to Prospero. Both men in some way use these women to achieve their goals.
It is in the third act that Iago’s plans begin to come to fruition. He manages to poison Othello against his wife. He takes a few innocent gestures on Cassio’s part and blows them completely out of proportion. Othello soon comes to the conclusion that his wife is being unfaithful to him. Therefore we see that by choosing to go to Cyprus with Othello, Desdemona’s death is inevitable.
In the third act, we also see her make a solemn promise to Cassio. She tells him that she will persuade Othello to change his mind regarding Cassio’s dismissal.
Desdemona: Do not doubt that; before Emilia here
I give thee warrant of thy place. Assure thee,
If I do vow a friendship, I’ll perform it
To the last article; my lord shall never rest;
I’ll watch him tame, and talk him out of patience;
His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift;
I’ll intermingle every thing he does
With Cassio’s suit. Therefore be merry, Cassio;
For thy solicitor shall rather die
Than give thy cause away.
She chooses to help Cassio. She is full of sympathy for him. However, this and her previous behavior towards him are interpreted as being rather forward by Iago. Once again she unwittingly falls victim to the patriarchal norms of the society. Her behavior, however innocent, is misconstrued by Iago, who uses this to his own advantage.
She is often torn between devotion and duty. In the fourth act, when she comes face-to-face with Othello’s fury, she still promises Cassio that she will do right by him. She merely asks him to wait a while. She is confident that she can get Othello to change his mind.
It is also in act four, that we see her display admirable dignity. When Othello in his rage strikes her, she merely says, “I have not deserved this,” and walks out. She maintains a calm exterior in spite of the circumstances.
Within the five acts of the play, we see Desdemona exhibit extraordinary strength, dignity and moral courage. She remains devoted to Othello throughout the play. She is helpless in the face of his unforgiving fury, yet she maintains a calm front. Unable to understand the reason for Othello’s rage, Desdemona comes to the only logical conclusion. She begins to believe that she is cause of her husband’s incomprehensible behavior.
This is a typical example of the patriarchal values instilled in her. She reasons that since she is the object of his anger, she must have caused it. It does not occur to her that external forces may be at work.
Desdemona has a premonition of her own death. She believes that she must die to convince Othello of her fidelity. It is evident that in spite of his violence towards her, she continues to love him.
Desdemona: So would not I; my love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his checks and frowns,—
Prithee, unpin me,—have grace and favour in them.
Emilia: I have laid those sheets you bade me on the bed.
Desdemona: All’s one. Good faith! how foolish are our minds!
If I do die before thee, prithee, shroud me
In one of those same sheets.
As Othello approaches her to kill her, she tries to refute his allegations regarding her infidelity. She is unable to convince him and ultimately chooses to die. We are told that she brings about her own death and that she was not killed by Othello’s hand. She in fact dies a ‘guiltless death’.
Thus we see that, Desdemona is doomed from the very beginning to be a tragic heroine. She lives in an oppressive society where her decisions dictate her destiny. She is fated to die as a result of the very choices she makes because all of them are misconstrued by those that she loves the most. Any decision that she makes will be used against her. Her life therefore is predestined to end tragically.