Notes on Desdemona

a collection of notes about the charecterization of Desdemona

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Character of Desdemona
Desdemona is a more plausible, well-rounded figure than much criticism has given her credit for. Arguments that see Desdemona as
stereotypically weak and submissive ignore the conviction and authority of her first speech ("My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided duty"
[I.iii.179­180]) and her brief fury after Othello strikes her ("I have not deserved this" [IV.i.236]). Similarly, critics who argue that Desdemona's
slightly bizarre vulgar joke with Iago in Act II, scene i, is either an interruption not written by Shakespeare or a mere vulgarity ignore the fact that
Desdemona is young, sexual, and recently married. She later displays the same chiding, almost mischievous wit in Act III, scene iii, lines 61­84,
when she attempts to persuade Othello to forgive Cassio.
Desdemona is at times a passive character, most notably in her willingness to take credit for her own murder. In response to Emilia's question, "O,
who hath done this deed?" Desdemona's final words are, "Nobody, I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell" (V.ii.133­134).
The play, then, depicts Desdemona contradictorily as a modest, faithful wife and as a bold, independent personality. This contradiction may be
intentional, meant to portray the way Desdemona herself feels after defending her choice of marriage to her father in Act I, scene iii, and then
almost immediately being put in the position of defending her fidelity to her husband. She begins the play as a supremely independent person,
but midway through she must struggle against all odds to convince Othello that she is not too independent. The manner in which Desdemona is
murdered--smothered by a pillow in a bed covered in her wedding sheets--is symbolic: she is literally suffocated beneath the demands put on
her loyalty. Since her first lines, Desdemona has seemed capable of meeting or even rising above those demands. In the end, Othello stifles the
speech that made Desdemona so powerful.
Tragically, Desdemona is apparently aware of her imminent death. She, not Othello, asks Emilia to put her wedding sheets on the bed, and she
asks Emilia to bury her in these sheets should she die first. The last time we see Desdemona before she awakens to find Othello standing over her
with murder in his eyes, she sings a song she learned from her mother's maid: "She was in love; and he proved mad / And did forsake her. She had
a song of willow. / . . . / And she died singing it. That song tonight / Will not go from my mind" (IV.iii.27­30). Like the audience, Desdemona
seems able only to watch as her husband is driven insane with jealousy. Though she maintains to the end that she is "guiltless," Desdemona also
forgives her husband (V.ii.133). Her forgiveness of Othello may help the audience to forgive him as well.
Act IV Scene II:
Othello interrogates Emilia about Desdemona's behavior, but Emilia insists that Desdemona has done nothing suspicious. Othello tells Emilia to
summon Desdemona, implying while Emilia is gone that she is a "bawd," or female pimp (IV.ii.21). When Emilia returns with Desdemona,

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Othello sends Emilia to guard the door. Alone with Desdemona, Othello weeps and proclaims that he could have borne any affliction other than the
pollution of the "fountain" from which his future children are to flow (IV.ii.61). When Desdemona fervently denies being unfaithful, Othello
sarcastically replies that he begs her pardon: he took her for the "cunning whore of Venice" who married Othello (IV.ii.93). Othello storms out of
the room, and Emilia comes in to comfort her mistress.…read more

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Desdemona starts off in a period of naïve, happy love of Othello, progresses to a phase of bitterness at his treatment of her, and ends with a final,
powerful adoration for her husband that survives even his murdering her. Talk about unconditional love.
Because Desdemona is smothered in her own bed ­ quite a passive way to die ­ it can seem like she's a weak character. And yet, she's not.…read more

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Act IV Scene II
"I'll be hang'd if some eternal villain, / Some busy and insinuating rogue, / Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, / Have not devised
this slander;"
(IV.ii. 155-158)
Othello storms out of the room in anger and leaves Desdemona feeling bewildered and unsure of what she has done wrong. Ironically,
she goes to Iago with her questions, looking for advice.…read more

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Constant Change
Act V scene II…read more

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Desdemona occupies contradictory positions in Othello; she is both `half the wooer' (I.3.176) (an active female who makes her
own choices ­ to marry Othello and to defend Cassio) and the passive prey or victim.…read more

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Ultimately the virtuous Desdemona refuses to blame Othello for her unhappiness: she declares it is her `wretched
fortune' (IV.2.129). She has learned that `men are not gods' (III.4.149) and this is a disappointment to her. But while
Desdemona submits willingly to the man she chose, she dies valiantly, fighting to be allowed to live and asserting her right to
defend herself. She has to be literally silenced. Her final words are intriguing and contradictory. There are many ways of
reading them.…read more

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Either from Venice, or some ... I had suborn'd the witness,
And he's indicted falsely. (3.4.139-153)
Thought: Ever-optimistic, Desdemona finds a way to excuse Othello's irrational, jealous behaviour.
How now, my lord!
I have been talking with ... in an honest face:
I prithee, call him back. (3.3.42-52)
Thought: Othello and Desdemona's interaction shows that they have a teasing, healthy relationship, and that Desdemona feels free to be strong and assert that she knows what is best
for her husband.…read more

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I ... he was born
Drew all such humours from him. (3.4.21-29)
Thought: Ironically, Desdemona does not think of Othello as a jealous person. Here we see that not only is a person's self-image untrue when compared to reality, but so is the image his
loved ones have of him.
Alas, thrice-gentle Cassio!
My advocation is not now in ... him,
Were he in favour as in humour alter'd. (3.4.…read more

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At one point, he suggests that he'd like to even the score with Desdemona, too, as some kind of compensation, but then he never returns to that idea. Iago seems to think that
pretty much everything is about sex.…read more


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