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Desdemona amongst all the treachery and sinister undertones of Iago’s character is personified as a loyal, honest and faithful character in contrast. Despite the initial rebellious streak of marrying Othello against her fathers will, this is seen as small and insignificant compared to the extent of Iago’s plan in corrupting Othello and Desdemona’s relationship.
Desdemona is described in the opening scene by Brabantio and Iago when given news of her eloping to marry Othello, ‘the moor’.
Her absence in this scene gives her the quality of a precious object, taken from Brabantio as if by a thief.
‘Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags’
By placing her among these possessions of Brabantio, Iago evokes a sense of importance in his news that Brabantio’s most precious ‘object’ has been taken.
Desdemona’s perception as a young, innocent and beautiful daughter is contrasted against the opinion of Othello as an evil and sinister opportunist.
‘Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs’
Othello is also described as an ‘old black ram’ and Desdemona as a ‘white ewe’.
This language symbolises the purity of Desdemona being corrupted by Othello who is seen as a bad match based on his race, age and position as a soldier.
Shakespeare enables us to gain an idea of how Desdemona was thought of before marrying Othello in the first scene; she was clearly the object of affection by her father and had a loyal duty towards him.
Others thought she was innocent and good, and couldn’t have foreseen her rebellious side. Roderigo comments:
‘Your daughter, if you have not given her leave… hath made a gross revolt’
This illustrates that she was still under her father’s wing and asking permission to marry would have been the normal thing to do. Brabantio is taken aback by her behaviour and his surprise leads him to suspect she was drugged or charmed to have done such a thing. He concludes:
‘trust not your daughters’ minds by what you see them act.’
Throughout this scene before even meeting Desdemona as a character in the play, we gain an idea of the way she is perceived by others as a ‘fair daughter’ and ‘white ewe’ and her actions in marrying Othello are greeted with surprise and anger by her father who instructs for the two to be apprehended immediately. Read how does Othello change over time
The real reason for their marriage being unknown at this point in the play, the audience are aware of the importance of her character, and from this one act Iago sees opportunities of betrayal towards Othello who he hates.
This opinion of Desdemona is carried on to the next scene where we meet Othello, and he expresses his love for her in conversation with Iago.
‘But that I love the gentle Desdemona’
When entering to apprehend Othello, Brabantio accuses him of ‘foul charms’ and that he ‘abused her delicate youth’ He can not believe her capable of this act of independence, she is described frequently with words of passive, naï¿½ve and innocent meaning such as ‘delicate’ and ‘a maid so tender, fair, and happy’
Othello displays a confident and reasonable to approach to Brabantio’s anger, and his good nature in dealing with this lead us to believe Desdemona’s choice in such a man can not be so ‘foul’ and unnatural as the other characters have portrayed.
However, Brabantio later describes her as
‘A maid never bold;
Of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion
Blushed at herself ‘
Brabantio has perceived her as a passive and loyal daughter to him, and is finding it upsetting to believe this fair and innocent daughter has made such a choice. He doesn’t agree with her marrying someone who isn’t matched in age, country and position. As a father he doesn’t want to believe she has moved on.
Desdemona’s first speech in the second scene shed a new light on her that moves away from the innocent and passive opinion others have of her.
‘My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty.’
A new angle can be seen that Desdemona, as an individual character has proven to be a spirited and mature women in her unpopular choice of husband, and possessing an independence of mind.
In contrast to the description of her as ‘A maid never bold’ her direct and confident confrontation to her father has proved her to be bold, and aware of her position.
She explains to her father she still feels respect for him, but to grow to be like her mother she assumes the role she learnt from her, in loving her new husband as her mother loved Brabantio. This shows her knowledge and intelligence as a women and her power of choice and decision. She is not just an object of her fathers or under his guidance any more, but has grown out of his power.
In this way she is a well-rounded and assertive character. However in undertaking these roles she behaves in a submissive and passive way at times in the play, especially as Iago’s dark plan becomes more apparent and takes its effects on Othello.
Throughout the development of Iago’s plot however she maintains her loyalty and integrity towards Othello, never lying or being adulterous. Iago’s malicious manipulation was entirely conceived and conducted by him alone, the total opposite to Desdemona as he descends into a dishonest and evil character. Throughout this she maintains her good nature and does not once fall to his level
The behaviour of Iago can be seen as jealousy towards his successful leader Othello, who at the beginning promoted Michael Cassio instead of Iago. This appears to be his starting point for hating Othello, and feeds on the unlikely match of a coloured soldier to a young beautiful Venetian woman. He uses this to conjure up accusations of adultery, and misconduct on Desdemona’s part.
Therefore, however strong and independent as a women Desdemona has grown to be, she is still outmatched by Iago, and falls victim to his secretive and treacherous manipulation of the characters around her. He turns the people that love and admire her the most into jealous and hateful people, and so successfully transmits his negativity on them.
The tragedy of this play centres on Desdemona and her good intentions, and her death shows the evil that has triumphed over good.
Desdemona’s well-rounded qualities in character are reflected by others opinion of her beauty. For this reason Iago is highly jealous of his master in his marriage to such a woman.
‘He hath achieved a maid
That paragons description and wild fame;
One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,
And in th’essential vesture of creature
Does tire the ingener’
Cassio describes her as possessing beauty beyond imagination, one that can not be described by even the most talented artists and writers. This reflects Cassio’s fond feeling towards her, and when Iago notices this he uses it to back-up his accusations of them having an affair.
Again she is described as ‘The divine Desdemona’ linking her to heavenly and godly creations. This gives her the quality of a statuesque woman, possessed with beauty and charm.
However this presentation of her is seen as an extension to the passive and innocent view of her, whereas before the men in the play perceived her as ‘fair’ and innocent, she has now blossomed into a women that transcends her to heavenly qualities.
As an audience you are still subject to other characters perception of her and particularly the men’s view, even though she has proved her presence and position, she subverts to a passive character. She is highly regarded and recommended by others, and the breakdown of this trust between her and Othello proves Iago to have achieved quite a feat.
Desdemona is not present in much of the action and this tends to be centred around the male characters. Othello’s commanding authority and Iago’s secretive plotting are the main focus and she fades into the background only to be talked about by the male characters. This reflects the passive side to her, and when she does speak her caring, gentle side are reflected through her love for Othello.
During Act 2 when she arrives in Cyprus by ship, Cassio gives her a grand entrance and comments that all must kneel before her. In response Desdemona replies
‘I thank you valiant Cassio. What tiding can you tell me of my Lord?’
This shows her concern for Othello’s safety and changes the subject straight away to reflect her urge to know how he is. Her character is presented as a loyal wife to Othello, and shows her thoughts are with him when they are not together.
The relationship between Emilia and Iago is presented very differently to Othello and Desdemona, on Emilia’s arrival in this scene he comments that he is more used to scalding than kisses from her. This kind of comment shows the bitter side to Iago and gives reason to his jealousy towards Othello and Desdemona’s relationship which is still strong and they have greater respect for each other.
Iago goes on to give his opinion of women in general, that they are not as they seem, and there pleasant side is only for show. In response Desdemona stands up for herself and rather than being submissive she shows an assertive side in denying his opinion and proving him wrong.
‘O fie upon thee, slanderer!’
‘These are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh
I’th’alehouse. What miserable praise hast though for her that’s foul and foolish?’
Unlike Emilia who remains a very submissive female in this scene and does not respond to Iago’s insults, Desdemona is intelligent and forthcoming in her argument.
As soon as Othello arrives their love for one another becomes apparent and that it is as strong as ever. Iago’s plan is only in the making and has not yet spoiled the love between them.
‘The heavens forbid
But that our love and comforts should increase,
Even as our days do grow.’
Their relationship is romanticised and the happiness of it is exaggerated by Shakespeare to heighten the sense of tragedy when things start to go wrong. To make something as pure and perfect as Desdemona portrayed as a demure and caring wife be compared to the heartless and bitter Iago presents them as total opposites, and the antithesis of each other.
Even Iago recognises this and confesses a feeling of love for Desdemona, yet his deep-seated bitterness of suspecting Othello of sleeping with Emilia is enough to not care about the consequences of his actions.
The perception of women in Othello, particularly of Venetian women, is given voice through certain characters during the play. Related to the context of the play set in Venice and the period of history, women were the possessions of their fathers until ‘handed over’ to their husbands. Women were not seen as the successful and money making men, they had the duty of caring for them and carrying out the domestic chores.
Desdemona is aware of her role all along and fulfils it with good behaviour in order to please her husband, and there relationship is bonded with love.
Another popular opinion of some women at that time was that they were adulterous and fickle. A man feared being ‘cuckolded’ because of the reputation it would give him, of having a wife that they could not control.
Desdemona does not ever behave like this, but Iago draws on this idea to arouse suspicions in Othello’s mind, so due to certain clues he concludes that Desdemona has cheated him and slept with another man.
The handkerchief given by Othello to Desdemona is a symbol of his love and gratitude towards her, and was a token that binds their marriage. When Desdemona misplaces this handkerchief Othello comes to the conclusion that she has cheated on him, due to the insinuations Iago has successfully planted in his mind.
Iago when talking about Desdemona to Roderigo in Act 2 Scene 1, assumes her natural instincts will lead her crave another man, not being content any longer with Othello. It is most likely that Iago does not believe she is like this really or ever would, but needs to convince Roderigo. He says
‘Her eye must be fed; and what delight
Shall she have to look upon the devil?’
Her ‘loveliness in favour, sympathy in years, manners and beauties’ are compared to Othello, whose blackness is paralled to the devil.
The way she is perceived as the object of beauty and caring nature is again pointed out by Roderigo who says in response
‘I cannot believe that of her; she’s full of the most blessed
More perceptions from the male characters in the play back up the way she is thought of.
‘She’s a most exquisite lady’
‘Indeed she’s a most fresh and delicate creature’
‘She is indeed perfection’
After the fight and Cassio is demoted, Desdemona enters the scene after being absent during the main action and says ‘What is the matter, dear?’ to Othello. Here she is presenting the caring and motherly side to her character and remains unattached from the actions of Iago’s devious manipulations. Othello is very protective of her and is reluctant to involve her in Cassio’s demotion.
Iago uses her caring and generous nature to encourage Cassio to warm Desdemona towards him, so that she can put in a good word to Othello and have Cassio reinstated. Iago’s real intentions are not in the interests of Cassio’s career as officer, further from it considering his jealousy towards him in the first place; he really wants Othello to notice the closeness of Cassio and Desdemona’s relationship and assume adultery.
‘Confess yourself freely to her; importune
Her help to put you in your place again. She is so
Free, so kind, so apt, so blessed at disposition, she
Holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than
She is requested.’
Desdemona proves herself in this role of mending the broken relationship of Othello and Cassio, and cares enough to try and restore there friendship. Her methods of doing this are not a passing suggestion to Othello to perhaps give Cassio another chance, but to forcefully carry out her promise to Cassio. She will ensure Othello takes notice and won’t give up until he acts upon it.
‘If I do vow a friendship, I’ll perform it
To the last article. My lord shall never rest.
His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift;
I’ll intermingle everything he does
With Cassio’s suit.’
In this passage she is very assertive and her multi-faceted character is portrayed as being loyal to the end, withholding promises and keeping her integrity.
She is a strong and passionate women who will stand up for herself when she feels necessary, but who at times has the admirable qualities of being a demure, passive and mild-natured wife to Othello.
Her mistakes however, and the same mistake of many of the characters, is being too trusting, and this trust is mistreated by Iago, who twists her kind and caring nature to his favour. He uses it to convince Othello that she and Cassio are having an affair, and uses the idea that she is too good to be true. He also manages to make Othello feel that he is to blame in a way, because of his race and believing that someone like her could be faithful to him. He uses the faults in Othello to give reason to why she may feel unsatisfied in their relationship
‘Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
One may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion, thought unnatural’
Once again her heavenly portrayal is remarked upon by Othello, who despite the heavy insinuations and suspicions Iago has planted in him, upon seeing Desdemona says,
‘If she be false, o then heaven mocks itself.
I’ll not believe it’
The passive side to Desdemona is a prevalent side to her character as Shakespeare chose to exclude her from most of the action, and this device shows the way talking behind each others backs, making assumptions and withholding suspicions can succeed in enough evidence for Othello’s inevitable mistrust. Despite all the signs from her being an honest and good person in her presence, Iago uses gossip to accuse her of adultery, and the idea that women are not as they seem.
This is a successful tactic by Iago, as whatever she does or says will not be enough to calm Othello when he believes without a doubt she has done him wrong.
This is shown in the beginnings of his suspicions during Act 3 Scene 3 when she goes to mop his forehead with the handkerchief he originally gave to her. He pushes it away, and instructs her to leave it where it fell.
As the handkerchief was a symbol of their relationship, white symbolising her purity and heavenliness, by no longer caring about this once important possession, he shows that he can no longer trust her. Her purity means nothing to him anymore, now that he believes she has given it to someone else.
Without enough proof however, even though the evidence given is merely gossip and hearsay, Othello doesn’t act on his suspicions. However once Emilia finds the handkerchief and gives it to Iago, he confronts Othello telling him lies of hearing Cassio dreaming about Desdemona and using the handkerchief to wipe his beard. This gives the impression to Othello that Desdemona has given her handkerchief to Cassio, and that there is more to there relationship suggesting they have slept together. The reason that Iago feels the need to tell these lies is because Othello has become distraught and suicidal with these conflicting thoughts about Desdemona and desires real proof. He says of her:
‘Her name that was as fresh
As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face’
It seems as though Othello is aware of the view the other characters connect his race with, that his darkness in skin is dirty, and ‘begrimed’ In contrast, the ‘fair’ face of Desdemona has become dark and ominous to him now that he thinks of her sinning against him.
As soon as enough evidence is given to Othello by Iago, his opinion of her seems to dramatically change. Even though he does not have any real proof, she is no longer the pure and innocent wife he married. She has become tarred by Iago’s malicious gossip.
‘Damn her, lewd minx! O damn her, damn her!
Come, go with me apart, I will withdraw
To furnish me with some swift means of death
For the fair devil.’
In conversation with Desdemona he remarks on her hand being moist, which symbolises her youthfulness and lust. Although he has not yet confronted her, his words reveal to the audience his suspicions about her faithfulness.
‘For here’s a young and sweating devil here
That commonly rebels.’
Desdemona’s blissful unawareness of the mounting anger inside Othello, especially when she reveals the handkerchief is lost, reflects a younger and naï¿½ve sounding Desdemona. She begins to sound like child who is being told of by her father, she believes without suspicion the story of the handkerchief’s elaborate history merely saying
‘Indeed? Is’t true?’
She doesn’t want to provoke anger in Othello, especially over such a small matter to her. However the audience are aware of how crucial this matter is to Othello, as the lose of the handkerchief and frequent mentions of Cassio all point towards his suspicions. At this point Desdemona is in a very vulnerable position without realising her life is at stake.
Desdemona becomes very worried over Othello’s dark mood, and assumes it is her fault for losing the handkerchief.
During Act 4, many insinuations and implications are suggested at by Iago, and it appears that nothing is said very explicitly. He speaks of Desdemona in relation to Cassio but only hints at this, mentioning the handkerchief as a connection.
Iago says that they have slept together, and that her heard Cassio bragging about it as proof. Soon Othello becomes distraught in his own head with feelings of love of Desdemona and jealousy.
‘A fine woman,
a fair woman, a sweet woman!’
‘Ay, let her rot and perish, and be damned tonight,
For she shall not live. No my heart is turned to
stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand’
Othello speaks as though he must punish Desdemona for what she has done, despite a longing for how he used to think of her, as a fair and sweet woman. Because of Desdemona’s loveliness, he is finding it difficult to accept, and Iago encourages the jealous monster in him to give way to these conflicting feelings.
Eventually this works and Othello plans to murder her.
‘I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me!’
Othello now perceives Desdemona as a ‘subtle whore’ and a ‘simple bawd’
Emilia recognises that he is wrong to believe this of her and in Desdemona’s defence upholds the way she was previously perceived.
‘For if she not be honest, chaste, and true.
There’s no man happy; the purest of their wives
Is foul as slander.’
Through Othello’s language in Act 4 Scene 2, Shakespeare uses language of pollution, discarded waste and hell to describe his feelings.
This language reflects the feelings of hate for Desdemona and lead to him eventually murdering Desdemona by suffocation later in the play.
Desdemona as a character reveals more to her than popular view of her being a passive women. She proves herself to be passionate and strong in opinion, but recognises her roles as a wife to Othello.
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