Desdemona in “Othello”
Although they are often glossed over and ignored, William Shakespeare provided several examples throughout his plays of women who demonstrated an unusual strength and resolve. Desdemona, in his tragedy Othello, is one of these women. In this play, we learn the story of a Moor, Othello, who has achieved the rank of a commanding general in Venice. He has just married the daughter of a wealthy merchant and must defend himself and her honor as the couple faces a crowd incited by the character Iago. Desdemona appears at Othello’s side, where she will stay for the duration of the play, consistently defending herself and the side of virtue despite all that occurs. She is a well-rounded heroic figure whose fatal flaw, if one can call it that, is her unconditional and ever-trusting love for Othello. Despite this, she remains rather static, having achieved her greatest growth prior to the start of the play in her decision to elope. Her strength already demonstrated, she remains true to her convictions come what may. Through this, Desdemona in Othello emerges as one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters, revealing her strength through her marriage to Othello, her protection of Cassio, and her reaction to Othello’s jealousy.
Before we even meet her, Desdemona emerges as a figure of strength because she has decided, without her father’s approval in an age when that was more prized than gold, to marry Othello, a stance she will retain throughout the rest of the play. She indicates the strength of her devotion to her father as soon as she enters the play: “To you I am bound for life and education; / My life and education both do learn me / How to respect you: you are the lord of duty; / I am hitherto your daughter” (I, iii, 182-85). Yet she professes her dedication to her husband Othello is even greater than her duty to her father. “Desdemona does not shrink before the Senate; and her language to her father, though deeply respectful, is firm enough to stir in us some sympathy with the old man” (Bradley, 1905, p. 204). Her father’s reaction to her marriage demonstrates the degree of racism felt within the city regarding Othello’s skin tone. This demonstrates even more Desdemona’s dedication to her ideas and the strength of her love that she would leave everything she has known behind and sacrifice her social status just to marry Othello.
Shakespeare does not allow the reader to think that Desdemona’s strength is merely a reflection of her love, though, as she consistently works to defend Cassio from the wrongful allegations being made against him. In discussing the way in which this individuality and strength of Desdemona’s was becoming infused with the sweet and good qualities she’d displayed in girlhood, Bradley says, “We have already a slight example in her overflowing kindness, her boldness and her ill-fated persistence in pleading Cassio’s cause” (1905, p. 204). As she promises Cassio to help him: “Be thou assurd, good Cassio, I will do / All my abilities in thy behalf” (III, iii, 1-2) and “Do not doubt, Cassio, / But I will have my lord and you again / As friendly as you were” (III, iii, 5-7), she inadvertently steps over her rights as wife to Othello and unknowingly feeds the evil rumors Iago has been feeding Othello when the two of them are apart. “In merging the postures of good wife and shrew, Desdemona indirectly challenges the presumption of their difference enforced in marriage handbooks, homilies, church courts, misogynist pamphlets, and the like” (Bartels, 1996), demonstrating her strength by not conforming to the conventional definitions of a good wife, but contributing to her own death.
It is her reaction to Othello’s jealousy that demonstrates her strength of character perhaps most profoundly. Within the play, Desdemona has proven herself to be very capable of using the existing definitions of a good wife and child to assert herself within those bounds. “While Othello uses acquiescence to repress, Desdemona uses it to assert herself, to sanction the expression of her own desires” (Bartels, 1996). However, with the doubts nagging at Othello, her previous forms of diction and behavior lose their womanly charms and deprive her of the power she once had. “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 – Proceed you in your tears. – / Concerning this, sir – O well-painted passion!” (IV, i, 246-49). Rather than accuse him of constantly mistreating her, Desdemona instead remains confused as to what she has done to lose favor with her lord. “The strength of her soul, first evoked by love, found scope to show itself only in a love which, when harshly repulsed, blamed only its own pain; when bruised, only gave forth a more exquisite fragrance; and, when rewarded with death, summoned its last laboring breath to save its murderer” (Bradley, 1905, p. 204). “While she seems, to feminists dismay, to defend Othello to the end (and even after) at her own expense, she actually exonerates herself and implicates him. She presents herself as a loyal wife, willing to sacrifice herself for love. But registered within her narrative of self-sacrifice is what we have been waiting desperately for her to produce – testimony of her fidelity and Othellos error” (Bartels, 1996).
Thus, even when Desdemona seems at her weakest, when she lies in her deathbed and refuses to blame her husband for her murder, Desdemona displays the same kind of strength and resolve she has shown throughout the rest of the play in actions such as her marriage to Othello and her defense of Cassio. She does this by using feminine definitions to authenticate her unconventional actions and methods, employing the male voice of honor, duty and respect to speak in favor of her behavior and to achieve what she has set her mind upon. By using patriarchal reasoning, she is able to defend her marriage to Othello and to accompany him to Cyprus and by using the male voice she is further able to press Cassio’s case. However, in her death, she uses the female voice of having done nothing wrong to defend herself against the man who murdered her even while she refuses to place direct blame on Othello, as a good woman would be expected to do.
Bartels, Emily C. “Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion of Desire.” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900. Vol. 36, 1996.
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 2nd Ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.
Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). New York: Penguin Books, 1969.