Desdemona has been criticised as a two dimensional character who is simply too good to be true; a paragon of virtue who embodies everything that is pure and true in humanity. Personally, I think this portrayal doesn’t do her justice.
Let’s have a look at her main appearances in the play and attempt to establish if there might be a psychological complexity lurking beneath the surface of her squeaky clean exterior. Here’s everything you never wanted to know about her. It’s 4,500 words long – an exam length essay is between 1000 and 1200 words so bear in mind that this is four times more detailed than any discussion of Desdemona you need to offer!
- Her reputation: before we ever meet Desdemona we learn that she is desirable yet rebellious. Roderigo, who is in love with her, is horrified that against her father she “hath made a gross revolt, tying her beauty, wit and fortunes in an extravagant and wheeling stranger“. Her father is even more horrified and finds it impossible to believe that “a maid so tender, fair and happy, so opposite to marriage that she shunned the wealthy curled darlings of our nation” would choose Othello as a husband. She is immediately associated with lust in our minds, but only because of Iago’s vivid descriptions of her and Othello having sex (“an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” “you daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs“) and these descriptions (from Iago, who we cannot trust) suggest that she is an innocent being taken advantage of by an older, domineering beast of a man. Brabantio accuses Othello of having drugged her (“she is abused, stol’n from me and corrupted by spells and medicines“); this is the only explanation in his mind which can explain how “a maiden never bold, of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion blush’d at herself” could “fall in love with what she fear’d to look at“. There is a contradiction going on here between the idealised version of Desdemona that her father and stalker offer to us, and the fact that she has secretly married a dark-skinned soldier who is ‘beneath’ her socially. She knows her father won’t approve of him but she falls in love with him anyway. Evidently, she’s not racist, despite her father’s assertion that Othello’s very skin colour would frighten her so he doesn’t know his daughter as well as he thinks he does. There’s obviously more to her than meets the eye and we look forward to meeting her so we can judge for ourselves.
- Othello and Desdemona’s love: Othello proclaims “I love the gentle Desdemona” and says he would otherwise never have given up his bachelor lifestyle. He clearly sees her as a calming presence in his life. However, unlike Brabantio, who only sees a meek obedient child, Othello sees another side to Desdemona. He sees her desire for adventure, her dissatisfaction with her dull uneventful existence (as an aristocratic lady, she was expected to marry well and live out her days bearing children, pleasing her husband and most likely never stepping outside the four walls of her city of birth) evident in her obsession with Othello’s dramatic tales of his travels, battles, sieges, floods, being sold into slavery and multiple hair breath escapes from danger. The fact that she arranges for him to tell her these tales in full (without telling her father what she was up to) and her reaction to his stories reveals the dual nature of her personality. She is deeply compassionate and is obviously a very good listener (“she loved me for the dangers I had passed and I loved her that she did pity them“) but she also wants more from life: “My story being done, she gave me for my pains a world of sighs: she swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange, ’twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful: she wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d that heaven had made her such a man; she thank’d me, and bade me, if I had a friend that loved her, I should but teach him how to tell my story, and that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake…“. In other words, she was the one who first suggested that a relationship between them might be a possibility. She made the first move as it were, albeit a very tentative one. This, along with all the time they spent together secretly in order to fall in love, conflicts with her father’s sense of her as “a maiden never bold“.
- Desdemona speaks to the Senate: Othello treats Desdemona as an equal. Rather than speaking for her, he asks that she be given the opportunity to speak for herself “I do beseech you, send for the lady”… “Let her speak of me before her father” (however, he may also just be saving his own skin here because he’s being accused of quite a serious crime here, yet he knows that they’re truly in love and that he hasn’t tricked her into anything: “If you do find me foul in her report…let your sentence even fall upon my life“). When she arrives, her speech reveals a deep respect for her father, a profound intelligence and a beautiful way with words “My noble father, I do perceive here a divided duty; to you I am bound for life and education… but here’s my husband: and so much duty as my mother show’d to you, preferring you before her father, so much I challenge that I may profess due to the Moor my lord”. We also see a determination to shape her own future, to control her own destiny. When the question arises of where she will go now that Othello is off to Cyprus, she respectfully refuses to go back to her father’s house “I would not there reside to put my father in impatient thoughts by being in his eye“. The life of adventure she dreamt of is now at her fingertips and she is not about to be prevented from going with Othello to Cyprus, boldly stating “I did love the Moor to live with him…I saw Othello’s visage in his mind and to his honours and his valiant parts did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. So that, dear lords, if I be left behind…I a heavy interim shall support by his dear absence. Let me go with him”. At the end of this scene, we hear Iago associate Desdemona with fickleness (“it cannot be that Desdemona should long continue her love to the Moor“) and insatiable lust (“when she is sated with her body she will find the error of her choice“) but there is no truth in Iago’s assessment of her character, a fact which Iago himself later admits. He’s simply telling lies to convince Roderigo that there’s still a possibility of Roderigo hooking up with Desdemona.
- Desdemona arrives in Cyprus & awaits news of her husband: As soon as their ship lands, Cassio associates their survival to nature’s reluctance to in any way hurt such a beautiful creature as “the divine Desdemona“, so we see yet another man worships her purity and has her on a pedestal so high, she’s sure to get vertigo! Desdemona’s main concern is for her husband; she immediately asks Cassio “what tidings can you tell me of my lord?“. They then hear another ship has landed and although anxious (she asks if someone has gone to the harbour to see if it’s Othello’s ship) she distracts herself by challenging Iago to describe her: “I am not merry, but I do beguile the thing I am by seeming otherwise. Come how wouldst thou praise me?” as she has just listened to him criticise his wife Emilia as a chatterbox and all women as vain, false, lazy and disinterested in sex (“You rise to play and go to bed to work“). Some people criticise Desdemona here for not acting suitably panicked about her husband’s welfare. Personally, I think it shows spirit that she challenges Iago’s misogyny (“fie upon thee slanderer“) and defends Emilia (“Alas! She has no speech“) and a calm faith that all will be well. Othello & Desdemona’s reunion testifies to the depth of their love and passion – Othello exclaims “O my fair warrior” to which she replies “My dear Othello!“. He fears that his content is so absolute that he cannot possibly get any happier; while she predicts that their “loves and comforts shall increase even as our days do grow!“. Sadly, she’s not right. This scene ends with some more character assassination from Iago, who tells Roderigo that Desdemona’s motivated purely by lust (he claims when her blood is made dull with sport, she’ll have a fresh appetite for someone more like her “in year, manners and beauties; all of which the Moor is defective in“) and tells Roderigo she’s in love with Cassio. When Roderigo struggles to accept this (“I cannot believe that in her; she is full of most blessed condition“) Iago replies “if she had been blessed she would never have loved the Moor“. Again, we can pretty much ignore everything Iago says about her as a pack of lies. She’s a pawn in Iago’s plot for revenge but it’s clear that her love for Othello is deep and sincere.
- Desdemona as the object of men’s lust & a puppet in Iago’s scheme: early that night, following a party to celebrate the destruction of the Turkish fleet in the storm, Othello whisks Dedemona away and implies that they are about to have sex for the first time “Come, my dear love, the purchase made, the fruits are to ensue, that profit’s yet to come twixt me and you“. She doesn’t speak, and after she leaves, Iago attempts to involve Cassio in a discussion of what a hot sexy dirt bird she is “she is sport for love“…”I’ll warrant her full of game“….”What an eye she has! methinks it sounds a parley of provocation“. We could conclude that this is a society that views women as little more than sex objects, but that’s not a fair assessment of what happens here. If you love someone (as Othello clearly loves Desdemona) it’s pretty normal to be excited about having sex with them for the first time and Cassio refuses to be drawn into disrespectful banter about their bosses wife, instead replying “An inviting eye and yet methinks right modest” “she is a fresh and most delicate creature” “she is indeed perfection”. She’s not completely passive however. Rather than wait for Othello to return to bed, she gets dressed, rouses an attendant and arrives on the scene to see “what’s the matter?“, which only infuriates Othello further that she’s had her sleep disturbed “Look! if my gentle love be not rais’d up“. Personally I think it’s really cute how protective he is of her. The only other comment on her character in this scene comes, yet again, from Iago. However, this time he’s speaking honestly about her to Cassio, as opposed to blackening her good reputation. He wants Cassio to get closer to Desdemona so he implies that she’s now wearing the trousers in the marriage “Our general’s wife is now the general” and advises Cassio to “confess yourself freely to her; importune her, she’ll help to put you in your place again. She is of so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition, that she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested”. In soliloquy, Iago then admits to us that this is her true character and that he will use his knowledge of her compulsively helpful nature as a way of destroying her relationship with her husband. The more she presses for Cassio’s reinstatement, the more he will imply that “she repeals him for her body’s lust” and this will serve his plan perfectly “so will I turn her virtue into pitch and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all“
- Desdemona destroyed: Act three begins with Emilia reassuring Cassio that he is sure to get his job back. Without any prompting or interference from Iago “the general and his wife are talking of it and she speaks stoutly for you“. It appears that Desdemona is already on Cassio’s side and the main thing preventing Othello from reinstating Cassio immediately is the fact that the man Cassio stabbed is “of great fame in Cyprus“. (Politically it would look as if Othello has no respect for the locals and that he plays favourites, if he allowed Cassio to get away with this offence unpunished). Nonetheless, Cassio asks Emilia to arrange a meeting between him and Desdemona and at the beginning of the Temptation Scene (Act 3, scene 3), Desdemona assures Cassio that she will not rest until he regains his former position. Her devotion to helping Cassio does seem extreme: in her own words, she says “if I do vow a friendship, I’ll perform it to the last article” and she even states “thy solicitor shall rather die than give thy cause away”. True to her word, when Othello enters she tries to cajole him into calling Cassio back and when he refuses saying “some other time“, she continues pressing the matter, questioning repeatedly “shall it be soon?” “shall it be tonight at supper?” “Tomorrow dinner then?” “Why then tomorrow night; or Tuesday morn; or Tuesday noon, or night; or Wednesday morn”. While she recognises when speaking to Cassio, the need for her husband to keep a “politic distance” but she refuses to allow this to deter her when attempting to influence him. This is undoubtedly Desdemona at her most irritating, yet Othello finds her behaviour cute, not nagging. [Immediately after she leaves, he looks after her fondly, claiming that he loves her deeply and that without her his world would be in tatters “Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee! And when I love thee not, chaos is come again“. However, by the end of this scene, Othello is plotting her death!] It’s vital to understand Desdemona’s motivation here, otherwise she’s just an annoying goody-two-shoes who doesn’t know when to let something drop. So why does she fight so doggedly and repeatedly on Cassio’s behalf? First of all she helps because she likes Cassio and possibly feels she owes him for helping her and Othello get together. Secondly, she feels Othello would be better off with Cassio, a trusted friend, by his side. Thirdly, she helps because she’s asked for help and she’s a good person. She likes feeling useful! Fourthly, she feels his punishment far outweighs his ‘crime’. Finally, and this is speculation on my part, she helps because she knows what it feels like to make one mistake and then be cut off from someone you really love and respect. This is what happened to her when she married Othello – her father disowned her! Desdemona needs to believe that it’s possible to gain forgiveness and be given a second chance. Perhaps getting Cassio his job back becomes symbolic. If he can be granted forgiveness for his disobedience, perhaps this will give her hope that one day her father will forgive her disobedience and their relationship can be restored. If this is her motivation, then we can view Desdemona as a complex and interesting character, not just some dumb naive girl who interferes in her husband’s decisions when it’s not really her place to. Also, there is a section in this scene where Othello basically says that he’s not the jealous type and his description of Desdemona is quite interesting here. He paints her as beautiful, sociable, a great singer, dancer and conversationalist (“Tis not to make me jealous to say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well; where virtue is there are more virtuous“) and views all of these as positive and desirable traits which reflect well on him “for she had eyes and she chose me” The next time she enters, Othello has just uttered the words “I do not but think that Desdemona’s honest” but he also orders Iago to “set on thy wife to observe” and laments giving up his single status “why did I marry?” When Desdemona enters, full of concern for her beloved “Are you not well?“, he says he has a headache and she is gentle and loving “Let me but bind it hard, within this hour it will be well again” despite his coldness. This is the moment when she drops her handkerchief & by the end of the scene, her husband is plotting her murder!
- Desdemona lies: the scene following the Temptation Scene is very distressing to watch, as the complete and utter breakdown in communication in their marriage is scarily evident. She keeps demanding that Othello speak to Cassio; Othello keeps demanding the handkerchief. The first and only lie Desdemona tells occurs here: when he demands if the handkerchief is lost, having already established that it was a dying gift from his mother, she behaves like a child, trying to see how much trouble she’ll be in before she admits anything “It is not lost: but what an if it were?” and then shrinking before his rage claiming “I say it is not lost“.
- Desdemona defends Othello: when Cassio reappears, asking if there’s any progress, she replies “my lord is not my lord” “you must awhile be patient, What I can do I will“. She then blames his erratic behaviour on work stress saying “something sure of state…. hath puddled his clear spirit” and she even goes so far as to feel guilty for being angry at him, saying that her expectations were unfairly high and she cannot expect him to be attentive to her and in a good mood all the time “Nay, we must think men are not gods, nor of them look for such observance as fits the bridal“. Again, many people take this as proof that she is a walkover. I think it’s more complicated than this. Yes, she’s incredibly forgiving but she’s also desperate to find an explanation for his sudden mood swings. She admits “I never saw this before” and maintains her innocence “I never gave him cause” then promises Cassio “I will go seek him“. She’s so utterly besotted by him and so convinced both of his love and her purity, that she cannot conceive of another explanation for his behaviour. Furthermore, admitting that he has serious flaws means acknowledging her own error of judgement and having given up everything to marry him, this is not something she can even contemplate.
- Desdemona’s public humiliation: Iago stages a conversation, supposedly about Desdemona, between himself and Cassio, with Othello listening in the shadows. Torn between love, despair and rage, Othello describes her as “a fine woman! a fair woman! a sweet woman!”, then curses her “Ay, let her rot and perish and be damned tonight, for she shall not live”. He proclaims that “the world hath not a sweeter creature; she might lie by an emperors side and command him tasks’ and then lists her talents “So delicate with her needle! An admirable musician! O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear. Of so high and plenteous wit and invention”…”And then, so gentle a condition!“… “But yet the pity of it Iago. O! Iago, the pity of it, Iago!“. Just as she finds it hard to think ill of her true love, so he finds it hard to think ill of her, despite all of the ‘evidence’ Iago has just provided that she’s being unfaithful. It is in the context of this emotional turmoil and rage that Lodovico arrives with a letter ordering that Othello return to Venice and Cassio take over in Cyprus. Desdemona’s is telling Lodovico about their falling out and says “I would do much to atone them, for the love I bear to Cassio“. This is the point where Othello completely loses it, shouts out the word “Devil” and strikes Desdemona, presumably a back-handed slap across the face. Desdemona barely reacts. She simply states “I have not deserved this“, weeps and then says “I will not stay to offend you“. Again, lots of critics take issue with her passivity here, believing she is too meek, too accepting in the face of this very public humiliation, but I see her response here as quite dignified. She is utterly baffled and so she withdraws to gather her thoughts and to hide her shame (I’m not saying she should feel ashamed, she’s done nothing wrong, but she will no doubt feel embarrassed, disappointed, distraught, that the man she believed was a perfect gentleman has turned out to be abusive). When Othello calls her back, she probably returns expecting an apology, but instead he spins her around and mocks her as she weeps “she can turn and turn and yet go on and turn again“. She says nothing, what can she say in the face of this cruelty? Then she exits, commanded by Othello “Get you away, I’ll send for you anon“.
- Desdemona’s private trial: Othello questions first Emilia, who claims “if she be not honest, chase and true, there’s no man happy“, then Desdemona. By now, she’s frightened and confused and determined not to provoke her husband, so she greets him with the words “My lord, what is your will?“. She is determined to get to the bottom of his anger, and begs him to explain what’s going on in his heart and mind “Upon my knees, what doth your speech import? I understand a fury in your words, but not the words“. He accuses her of being a liar “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell” but she again directly challenges him to explain “To whom, my lord? with whom? how am I false?“. She knows it is impossible to defend herself if she does not know what it is she’s being accused of but her major concern is still for his happiness: “Why do you weep? Am I the motive of these tears, my lord?” She again seems convinced that it’s something work related that’s bothering him, asking Othello not to blame her if he suspects her father has had some part in Othello being summoned back to Venice. Again, he refuses to answer, this time offering a long list of all the things he could happily endure, but claiming that a broken heart is too cruel for anyone to survive. And again, for the fourth time, she asks “Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed?” and this time he replies, accusing her of being a whore. She replies, in a dignified manner, that she is not a whore, saying “if to preserve this vessel for my lord from any other foul unlawful touch be not to be a strumpet, I am none“. Once he storms out, she asks Emilia to lay her wedding sheets on her bad, then asks for Iago to see if he can cast any light on Othello’s bizarre behaviour. In fact, it is Emilia who figures out that “some eternal villain…hath devised this slander” but Desdemona finds it hard to believe that one so wilfully cruel could exist “If any such there be, heaven pardon him“. The scene concludes with her determination to fix whatever’s gone wrong between them “What shall I do to win my lord again?” she asks Iago, “I know not how I lost him“. She weirdly anticipates the danger she’s in (“his unkindness may defeat my life but never taint my love“) but like all good horror movie heroines, instead of going out the door and as far away from the danger as possible, she goes up the metaphorical stairs, directly into the danger! I suppose, at least in Desdemona’s case, it’s fair to ask, where the hell else can she go?
- Desdemona the doormat: Othello orders her to go to bed and dismiss Emilia and at this point, there is little trace of any rebelliousness left in her character. She is 100% obedient event though she again seems to instinctively sense that she’s not safe alone with him, telling Emilia “If I do die before thee, prithee, shroud me in one of those same sheets“. Her love is constant and unconditional. When Emilia comments “I would you had never seen him” Desdemona replies “So would not I“. However, a brief flicker of doubt about her choice of husband does seem to cross her mind as she remarks to Emilia “This Lodovico is a proper man” and they briefly discuss how handsome and eligible he is. Her song “willow, willow, willow” makes it clear that she knows Othello is not in his right mind yet she stays. Her purity is underscored is her disbelief “that there be women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind” and is her repeated assertion that she would not cheat on her husband “for all the world“. She really seems too good to be true in this scene as she calls on heaven to help her not complain about what has just occurred but to learn from it!
- Desdemona’s death: She’s sleeping as he arrives, so she can’t have been too terrified or she’d surely still be awake! Once he wakes her and starts telling her to repent her sins before she dies, she reacts with fear, asks heaven to have mercy on her twice, tells Othello to send for Cassio, reacts with horror when she’s told he’s dead because now she feels there is no way to prove her innocence (“Alas! He is betrayed and I undone“), then pitifully begs for her life “O! banish me my lord but kill me not!” “Kill me tomorrow; let me live tonight!” “But half an hour” presumably all this time struggling to escape. The demands of realism are then stretched to breaking point here, as Desdemona almost dies from suffocation – and then does! For a modern audience, this is just absurd! You can’t almost die of strangulation, speak a bit and then die – you either die or you don’t! Sadly, Shakespeare’s medical knowledge (or the medical knowledge of the era) lets him down badly here but if we lay aside our disbelief for a moment, Desdemona’s dying words are hugely significant. She tries to protect her husband, her murderer claiming “a guiltless death I die” and replying to Emilia’s question “Who hath done this deed” with a claim that she commit suicide “Nobody; I myself; farewell. Commend me to my kind lord. O! farewell!”. Claiming you had commit suicide was a pretty big deal back then. It meant you could not be buried on hallowed ground, which for many believers meant you could not go to heaven. It also meant destroying your reputation after your death, as suicide was seen as a shameful crime against God. So why does she do it? Perhaps she realises that Emilia’s earlier hunch was correct – she does realise that Cassio has been betrayed by someone. Obviously her love for Othello is so unbelievably unconditional that she’ll even forgive him for killing her. And finally, it would seem that even in death she wants to protect him which would be cute if it weren’t so unbelievably unrealistic…