The Character of Desdemona in William Shakespeare’s “Othell o“ –Empowered Woman or puppet in the conspiracy?
This essay deals, as the title says, with one of the main female characters in William Shakespeare’s drama “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice“. In it I will analyse the character of Othello’s wife, Desdemona, in relation to the men and the society in the play. Othello is believed to have been written in 1603 and deals, as it is typical for dramatic and tragic plays, with the downfall of the hero from proud reign to jealous despair. The situation in the play changes dramatically, when the hero Othello changes his mind about Desdemona from a passionate lover to the hateful killer, because of his Ancient Iago’s intrigues. Iago is said to be one of the greatest villains Shakespeare ever created, because “[e]vil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the character of Iago” (Bradley, 207). Within the plot, the action increases constantly with every new cruel step in his plan to make Othello believe that his wife is cheating on him with his lieutenant Michael Cassio. Iago influences every action that takes place in the plot, because he wants to destroy the people who have betrayed him, by planting false thoughts in their heads, so that they give his speeches faith and draw the wrong conclusions. So he does with Othello, by letting him believe that his wife is unfaithful. In this essay, the focus now should be on Desdemona and discuss how she is a tragic figure. Because on the one hand she is a puppet in Iago’s games, but with a developed character, and on the other hand she stands up for herself, for example, if she marries Othello against the wishes of her father, and has her own opinions that she represents in front of others.
First of all, a short definition of the term feminism should emphasize the traditional role of women in society. Feminism means the desire to change the belief, that woman always have been treated differently in society than men and that they have been unable to fully participate in all social institutions. It gives a new perspective on society itself by its try to eliminate old assumptions about why women were suppressed and men were seen as superior to women. It points out, that women are not inferior to men, but have their own opinion which they can also prevail (Schwenk 1996, 94). All of Shakespeare’s female characters seem to have the same tragic element, their early, unnatural death. Othello always wants his wife to be obedient and fears that she is not – so her felt disobedience is the reason that she has to die. But Desdemona, as a female character, plays an important role for the dramatic run of the events, because without her, there would be no drama. As in reality, the women in Shakespeare’s time have been bound to the rules and conventions of the patriarchal Elizabethan era. The roles of women in the society were very restricted, they were the property of their fathers and later their husbands, so they were assumed to spent their lives in the service of men. Society considered them as the weaker sex and it was said that their sexuality was mystical and should therefore be feared by men. Women were supposed to be chaste, calm, patient and obedient, especially towards men. They had to stay at home and be housewives and mothers, while men earned the money and made all the decisions. In contrast to that, Shakespeare presents Desdemona as a strong woman who makes her own decisions and is committed to them. This can be seen in Act I, Scene 3, where she emphasizes her decision to marry Othello: “So much I challenge, that I may profess, Due to the Moor my lord” (v. 188-189). By saying: “My noble father, I do perceive here a divided duty: To you I am bound for life an education […], I am hitherto your daughter: but here’s my husband […]” the Elizabethan image of woman is reflected, Desdemona first was obedient towards her father and now she transfers these duties to her husband. So on the one hand, she acts as it was expected, on the other hand, the man she chooses is not accepted by her father. That she flouts the will of her father shows already at the beginning of the play, that she is a strong woman, who enforces her opinions. She starts to create her own space and to represent a spirited, independent personality. Women in Shakespeare’s time were in general treated as subordinate, they weren’t allowed to raise their voice. But there were women, who, despite the oppression, patriarchy and dominance of men, raised their voice for their opinions and rights. Desdemona is one of those characters, she speaks for herself and refuses to be repressed by patriarchy. She transgresses the boundaries of tradition and decides to stand beside her husband. But as we will see, she cannot prevent herself from being vulnerable and she can not exercise her acquired freedom. Othello doubts and does not trust her until he finally kills her, instead of just asking her herself and listen to her. Although she is powerful, strong and exercises her rights, this is precisely what causes her doom. Also Lisa Jardine says, that “[h]ere is a woman’s defining knowledge: private, domestic and sexual, requiring to be hidden from public view in the interest of decorum and modesty” (Jardine). Desdemona is presented as an independent woman, who is headstrong and determined to live the life she choose. As we have seen, she has no problem with marrying a man, even a moor, against her father’s will and in a time, where racial prejudice was normal. All of that is what makes her the tragic heroine, because she was particularly vulnerable to the oppression of the society. When she tried to stand up for her thoughts, it results in her death. When she defends her decision to marry Othello and to go with him to Cyprus in front of the senators and his father she says: “That I did love the Moor, to live with him, My downright violence, and scorn of fortunes, May trumpet to the world […], let me go with him” (Act I, Scene 3, v. 248-259). Especially the use of the last sentence underlines her stubbornness and her resistant nature. She does not ask shy and polite, if she is allowed to go with him, but just decides to go, because that is what she wants. Jardine points out, that “in Elizabethan age the domineering wife brought shame and humiliation upon her husband” (Jardine). Openly confident women were frowned upon in this time, so the Character of Desdemona is very contrary to the norm, which created much controversy. Her conversation with her father Brabantio suggests, that she is a strong woman, because she makes the decision in the courtship like a heroine. She is self-confident and uses a clear language with short sentences so that she cannot be misunderstood. She informs him, that she is about to leave with Othello, but without losing the respect for her father by making him compliments and thanking him. So she is not offending him and this tactic shows, that Desdemona is very intelligent and asserts her womanhood in the face of oppression. She thinks her feelings are justified because her heart is “subdued even to the utmost pleasure of my lord” and she goes on: “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind, and to this honours, and his valiant parts did I my soul and fortune consecrate”. Bus despite being the headstrong woman she is, Desdemona has to accept her subordinate character by asking the Duke to listen to her, even if her decision is actually clear: “most gracious duke, to my unfolding lend a gracious ear, and let me find a charter in your voice, and if my simpleness …”. She needs to ask, even if she is sure that she gets her will in the end, but her status as a woman demeans her intelligence and capability to deal with the upcoming problems.