- Character and role of Desdemona in Othello.
- Is Desdemona a pathetic character rather than tragic? Discuss.
It is very easy, as several recent critics have noted, to canonize Desdemona, a fate rather common to a number of Shakespeare’s particularly appealing heroines. Desdemona, however, is made of stern stuff and not all her characteristics are quite so saintly. This is far from giving credence to Iago’s insinuations. It implies rather that she is human. It is a little too easy to consider Desdemona as not much more than the object of Othello’s love and the victim of the passion. This is ironic, for Desdemona’s chief quality is her independence, a characteristic not uncommon in a number of Shakespeare’s female characters. She is no shy, reticent creature when it comes to standing up for herself before the senators of
We have to consider that she is brought at night to speak for herself and
Othello before an angry and distressed father. Her language is firm, temperate
and ingenuous. When she says in Act I, scene iii, “My father I do perceive here
a divided duty”, we hear also the voices of Portia in the court room at Venice and of Cordelia
before her father. It is clear that Shakespeare was much concerned with the
divided allegiance between father and husband that a woman has to experience.
Cordelia tries to make Lear aware of this ambivalent position of woman but
neither Lear nor Brabantio understands the plight of his daughter.
In other ways too, Brabantio is mistaken about his daughter. It is in his speech in Act I, scene iii that we get the first extended description of Desdemona’s character:
“A maiden never bold,
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself.”
But Othello’s account of his courtship offers a glimpse of a Desdemona who has much more spirit and initiative than this, for it is she who invites Othello, questions him about his history and generally takes the initiative in their love-affair. In fact, her oblique hints to Othello about “a friend that loved her suggests that she is not entirely free from feminine wiles, though far from being the “super subtle Venetian” of Iago’s twisted imagination. The moment we see her, we realize that her father has never expected that she is a woman with great independence, determination and courage. The calm logic with which she defends her marriage to Othello is an unmistakable sign of a full, intelligent independent mind. But the penultimate line of her speech to the senators contains a word that takes her a little beyond that: “So much I challenge”—she staking a claim to her ‘rights’ and challenging her father that they are her rights.
In trying to ascertain how this challenge has arisen, we perhaps discover something less admirable about Desdemona. It is of much less significance now-a-days if a young woman should suddenly and secretly disappear from home, marry and live with her husband. To Shakespeare’s first audiences this must have seemed remarkably remiss, even shocking. It could not be excused as a mere romantic elopement. A modern audience may wonder at charges that Desdemona has been spirited away by magic, love-charms and witchcraft, but to an Elizabethan her action needed some such explanation. If in the late 20th century we pay much attention to Brabantio’s anger, we probably think of it simply in terms of Desdemona running from security of home to Othello’s “sooty bosom”. That is only a lesser reason for Brabantio’s shock. At the time that the play was written, a man with his position in the world would have been astonished at what his daughte4r had done. This lays Desdemona open to Iago’s reminder to Othello, “She did deceive her father”, a warning Brabantio had uttered in the third scene:
“Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see
She has deceived her father and may thee.”
There can be little doubt that not a few in Jacobean England would have nodded approval. Thus some commentators find together in Desdemona a spirited independence and a certain willful irresponsibility.
Desdemona, in the tradition of 19th century genteel representativeness best represented by Mrs. Jameson (Shaw’s heroine) can be seen as too innocent, too good to be true. If that does not quite accord with her independence of spirit, it accords even less with her sexuality. It is not unreasonable to suggest that if Desdemona was so ready to run from home into her beloved’s bed, she must have been, like Othello, a passionate creature. She can perhaps be best described as having a strong natural sexuality; there is little doubt that she is sexually attractive to Cassio, Roderigo, Iago and Othello. It is also evident that her independent nature that enables her to relate freely with men. However, this does not mean that one should agree with Dr. Spigack’s odd conviction that Cassio and Desdemona are really in love with each other or Auden’s belief that “given a few more years of Othello and Emilia’s influence, she might well, one feels, have taken a lover”. We know, and, Othello learns too late, that his wife is virtuous; so her pleasures are innocent and they reveal Desdemona as being quite as much as Othello or “a free and open nature.”
The tendency to see Desdemona as a passive victim rather than as a tragic heroine in her own right depends on our assuming that she is dramatically parasitical on the hero. But as a recent critic, J. Adamson has put it, “the significance of the play is deepened by what it shows her individual inner experience to be—especially what it shows in her love for Othello and her ways of responding to him throughout the action”. When taken as a person in her own right, Desdemona is seen to have a more complex character than she was credited with in earlier criticism.