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Who is Desdemona?

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Desdemona is a female heroine in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. She is the daughter of Senator Brabantio of Venice, and defies her father by secretly marrying Othello, a soldier of Moorish ancestry. Scholars are divided as to the merits and true personality of the character. Some experts believe that she is the ultimate personification of a traditional woman, ruled by her heart and loyal to her husband even as he murders her. A contradictory interpretation is that the character is a woman far ahead of her time who believes herself to be Othello’s total equal, and her death is a result of a society unprepared for a feminist point of view.

In the play, Desdemona shocks her father and Venetian society by secretly marrying Othello. Despite Othello’s abilities as a soldier and the near-universal admiration he enjoys, he is the object of racial prejudice and not considered a fit husband for the daughter of a senator. Othello and his wife convince the Venetian senate to accept their marriage and move to the island of Cyprus, where Othello leads a war against the invading Turkish army.

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Once on Cyprus, Iago, a discontented soldier and accomplished schemer, convinces Othello that Desdemona is carrying on an affair with Othello’s closest friend, Cassio. Othello smothers her with a pillow, but in explaining the situation, is informed by Emilia, Iago’s wife, that his wife was faithful and Iago is to blame. Iago kills Emilia for betraying him and is captured while trying to escape. Othello stabs himself and dies.

The controversy over Desdemona’s character concerns her inability to believe that Othello would ever do her harm. Traditional interpretation suggests that this was the role of a proper wife, and in Shakespeare’s time adultery in a wife was punishable by death. In this view, the character conforms to the era’s socially acceptable picture of a woman, and her death is looked on as a tragic death of an innocent caused by Iago’s thirst for power and revenge.

Other scholars are not convinced by this argument, pointing out several flaws. First, a proper woman would never marry without her father’s permission, as Desdemona clearly does. Second, Othello describe their courtship as growing from her passion to listening to his heroic and bloody stories of battle, hardly appropriate topics for a high-born lady. She is also eager to go to Cyprus, the very center of a war, rather than remain safely behind in Venice and wait for her husband’s return.

This interpretation suggests that the character, as a woman hungry for passion, battle, and war, is aware of her position as a misfit to traditional society. The theory implies that Desdemona and Othello’s attraction is a result of their similar status as true outsiders, she as a liberated woman, and he as a refined and powerful Moor in a racist country. Her belief in their marriage and equality is something she stakes her life on, and unfortunately she misjudges her husband.

Desdemona’s most famous scene consists of a discussion about marriage with Emilia. In this conversation, Emilia insists that infidelity is acceptable if you are mistreated by your husband. Desdemona, however, claims that being treated badly is not an excuse to act badly, and moreover inspires worse outcomes.

This scene is used in support of both arguments regarding her character, either as an example of her inherent purity or a mission statement for her wise and stubborn principles. Regardless of the interpretation, Desdemona presents a central argument of the play by asking whether it is better to admit mistakes and learn to do better, or to ignore them and seek revenge to protect the ego.

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