William Shakespeare’s play Othello opens with Othello, a Moor who has achieved the rank of a commanding general in Venice, attempting to defend himself against accusations that he has wronged the daughter of a wealthy Venetian merchant. As an angry crowd incited by Iago begins to gather, Desdemona appears at Othello’s side, taking up a position she will not abandon throughout the remainder of the play. One of the more endearing qualities of the play is the intense emotion that Shakespeare manages to convey through these two characters. That they are obviously in love is demonstrated through their devotion to one another in the face of tremendous hostility. However, love deflected through a dark lens can often go drastically wrong as is the case when Iago begins to work on Othello’s insecurities in this department. While Desdemona continues to demonstrate a fierce devotion to her husband, blinding her to the truth of his murderous emotions, Othello’s love for Desdemona becomes a towering jealousy that drives him to murder.
Before we even meet her, the audience is aware that Desdemona is ruled by her emotional feelings of love for Othello. This is first discovered as it is obvious that she has decided, without her father’s approval in an age when that was more prized than gold, to marry Othello. 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. Her father’s reaction to her marriage demonstrates the degree of racism felt within the city regarding Othello’s skin tone, something Desdemona apparently hasn’t even considered and which will eventually limit the social circles she will be welcome to join within her highly racial society. 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. As Othello’s jealousy begins to manifest itself in his harsh treatment of her, Desdemona simply continues to agonize over what she might have done to antagonize him rather than believe he is acting irrationally, unjustly or improperly. Her love for him allows her to ignore the dangerous state of his emotions, eventually leading to her own death. However, even in her final moments, Desdemona continues to feel love for her husband and doesn’t regret her choice.
Othello, on the other hand, allows himself to be ruled by jealousy throughout most of the play as it is fed by erroneous and misunderstood information. For Othello, the doubt and suspicion growing in his mind regarding a possible relationship between Cassio and Desdemona was started with Desdemona’s own father at the beginning of the play. Othello is warned, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee” (I, iii, 292-93). Iago, having been witness to this and knowledgeable of Othello’s “free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so; / And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose / As asses are” (I, iii, 393-96), uses this doubt and suspicion, as well as Othello’s own love for others, to Othello’s destruction. Desdemona’s attempts to honor her promise to Cassio to defend him to Othello serve as fuel to the jealous fire started by Iago’s whispers. She has told him, “Be thou assur’d, 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), making a promise in good faith to a true friend yet, because these conversations are observed by Othello without being heard, they simply fan the flames of Iago’s insinuations. Desdemona’s continued appeals to her husband to forgive Cassio, while remaining unaware of the insinuations being levied against her by Iago, only serve to increase the suspicion. In allowing his jealousy to get the better of him, Othello is incapable of acting out his own noble and just nature as it was displayed at the beginning of the play when he refused to fight with misled old men and ends up killing his wife in a jealous rage. As his rage is acted out, Othello calms down, realizing that a dead Desdemona cannot cheat on him. However, as he learns of her true innocence and his own foolishness, he understands that he cannot live with the tremendous guilt at having killed his love and he runs himself through with his sword.
Although Desdemona continues to demonstrate through her behavior and her words that she loves Othello to distraction, Othello is incapable, because of his jealousy, of recognizing this devotion for what it is. As he becomes more and more convinced that Desdemona is harboring improper feelings for Cassio, Desdemona remains blind to his concerns and the possible reasons for his tempers and thus remains powerless to do anything to alleviate them, such as dropping her case in support of Cassio. Had Desdemona not been so blind to her husband’s doubts of her love for him, she might have been able to salvage the situation despite Iago’s words. Had Othello not been so blinded by jealousy to see that his wife truly had his own best interests at heart, he would not have reached such a towering rage. In the end, most of the characters are killed because of their association, in some form, with the source of Othello’s built up jealousy until Othello, finally learning the truth of the situation, kills himself in grief.
Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). New York: Penguin Books, 1969.