An unfortunately common critique Desdemona’s character in Othello is that she presents a passive character, who is virtuous, yet lacks any real depth or resolve, and thus the tragedy is unfortunately hollow because of this problem. This critic is not well founded, as Desdemona, on the contrary, presents an image of a woman going against the cultural expectations that society has placed on her, and instead choosing to follow through on her own convictions which primarily concern loving her husband Othello, proving to be a great and resilient woman. The tragedy does not suffer from any passivity on the part of Desdemona. Rather, it is her strong resolve to trust her husband in times of crucial doubt that emphasize the tragic elements of the play.This essay will observe the many aspects of Desdemona’s character throughout the play, such as her role in the play itself as a supporting character, her inaction actually constituting strength, her initiative in pursuing Othello, her loyalty to her husband over her father,choosing to go to war, and her unconditional love for Othello. Ultimately, Desdemona is a strong-willed character who actively chooses to love her husband over any obstacle.
A major issue that critics may have with Desdemona stem from a lack of focus on her actual role in the play itself, placing unreasonable expectations on her as a supporting character.As Harley Granville-Barker suggests “Desdemona’s part in the play is a passive one” and this is true if we judge her with respects to her role in the play as a unified whole, a tragedy with all the plot elements of which a tragedy consists, without judging her character itself. Desdemona is not the focal point of the play and therefore her character must be passive enough in order to facilitate the overarching plot of Othello’s tragic fall. If Desdemona had played as large of a role in the action as Othello, the balance of the play itself would be overthrown, and the plot could not be sustained. Thus, the character of Desdemona as a truly strong willed and resolute woman, must still take a back seat, which may come across as passive to an unmindful audience. This passivity, while truly apparent, is one with reference to the Desdemona’s influence on the plot, and not to her character itself. In regards to her character, she is strong willed, and displays these qualities as the play permits.
The inactionthat critics observe with respects to Desdemona, is not truly inaction, so much as a decision to trust Othello, which at times presents itself as a type of inaction. It is important to observe a distinction between a weakness of character and inaction, and although Desdemona tends toward inaction especially toward the end of the play, she cannot be criticized of displaying a weakness of character. If she truly were to act, it would be to distance herself with her husband because of his suspicion, which would be a less noble action than trusting him, despite the result. Further, Desdemona’s apparent inaction in the play stems from her innocent nature, always believing the best of her husband, despite his often suspicious behavior. In her conversation with Emilia, she finds it hard to believe that any woman would cheat on her husband:
I have heard it said so. O, these men, these men!
Dost thou in conscience think – tell me, Emilia –
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind? (4.3. 56-59)
She is does not lack intelligence or an ability to sense when something is amiss, as she does sense that something is wrong with Othello asking: “Why do you speak so faintly? Are you not well?.” Her awareness of the situation simply does not extend to the level of suspecting her husband of questioning her fidelity. The idea of Othello’s deep and immediate lack of trust is not given much thought, because for Desdemona it is not truly a possibility. Othello displays a weakness of character though is jealousy and lack of trust, while Desdemona’s strength of character lies in her confidence in her marriage, and unwavering personality.
Desdemona, does show a forceful personality, and she confidently moves toward her goals in the beginning of the play. Shemarries Othello, her own choice, against the Venetian suitors who her family believes she should marry. This action breaksa venetian custom through interracial marriage, displaying Desdemona’s assertive personality and ability to choose her own path, over the pre-ascribed expectations of society. Further, the ability to see Othello for who he truly is, rather than focusing on the negative reputation that he has because he is a moor, reflect Desdemona’s own depth of character. Carol Thomas Neely describes Desdemona’s actions as being without concern for the material things such as rank and class. In this action she mustalso ready to stand firm in her marriage, despite the onslaught of problems that may arise from this departure from established custom.
Desdemonacorrectly chooses to be loyal to her husband even over her father, since being Othello’s wife, her loyalties lie primarily with him. She with Othello, being strong willed, and going against her father’s wishes, and she later questions whether to show more loyalty to her father or her husband, and after deliberation she rightly chooses her husband:
My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you. You are lord of all my duty,
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband;
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge, that I may profess
Due to the Moor, my lord.(1.3. 178-187)
She is wise in her deliberation and her ultimate choice to ally herself primarily with her husband on the basis of morality, because once she and Othello are married, her primary duty is to him over her father. Desdemona also displays her initiative and strength of will in going through with her decision, and shamelessly presenting it to her father, despite his probable reaction.
Her loyalty seems to know no bounds as she even chooses to go to war with Othello, something that is unheard of during this time in history. She explains:
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
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me,
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him. (1.3. 249-256)
This unwavering resolve to support her husband through the harshness of war, challenges the established cultural norms that permeated contemporary Venice. Yet Desdemona characteristically does not concern herself with the expectations of society in this scene, even if it means going to war, something so active that it is regarded as exclusively masculine. Her concern is with the good of Othello, and not her own reputation.
Desdemona is often criticized for accepting Othello’s faults and displaying symptoms of battered wife syndrome, yet perhaps this critique is a misconstrued theory which actually relates to her active and unconditional love for Othello. The necessary function of unconditional love, the truest and purest form of love, is that it by definition knows no limits. The actions of Othello, however evil, are simply conditions that Desdemona chooses to overlook, opting for a deeper, immutable love for her husband. Her love for Othello is so strong that even after she has nearly been murdered by him, she still will not admit that he has attempted to kill her. This shows an extreme strength of character as she even now puts Othello before herself. Ironically, she parallels Othello in this continual choice of trust throughout the play, as he makes an early decision to accept Iago’s word over his wife’s. Thus, far from a passive response to the challenges that she faces, Desdemona actively chooses the more difficult path, ultimately sacrificing herself for the sake of trusting her husband. The tragic outcome at the end of the play is heightened in our minds, the more we observe the fairy-tale-like marriage between Othello and Desdemona in the beginning. Because Desdemona loves her husband to such a great extent, her murder has a greater impact on the reaction of the audience, and the tragedy is all the more forceful.
In Conclusion, we can observe that Desdemona is a strong and noble character through her various actions and speeches throughout the play while keeping a few things in mind. Her role in the play itself only permits a certain amount of activity as a supporting character, yet in the few scenes that we observe, she proves to be strong-willed and active. The inaction that we observe is more properly viewed as a firm resolve to trust her husband despite the obstacles. She willfully goes against custom when she marries Othello because of the interracial nature of the marriage. She shows a primary loyalty to Othello, her husband, over her father. Being more concerned with Othello than custom, she actively decides to go to war with him. Finally, she displays an unconditional love for her husband, deciding to trust him until the last possible moment. These actions display Desdemona as a character who is truly strong-willed, and actively chooses to love her husband, regardless of consequences.
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