Desdemona is a character in Shakespeare’s Othello.
She is one of the most pitiable victims in all of Shakespeare’s plays. A devoted, loving wife, she is murdered by her husband in a fit of jealous rage.
Othello is about many things and one of the most glaring of those things is race. The eponymous character, Othello, is a Moor. Although he is a highly accomplished and experienced general and head of the Venetian army he is subjected to racial abuse.
The play opens to a Venetian crisis. The Turks are heading towards Venice and unless they can be stopped they will invade the city. In the meantime Brabantio, a prominent Venetian citizen, has just heard that his daughter, Desdemona, has run off with the Moor and married him.
Enraged, Brabantio takes Othello to the Duke, who is meeting with the Council, where they have just decided that they will send a battalion of soldiers to Cyprus, under the command of their top general, Othello, to confront the Turks. Brabantio makes his complaint against Othello and Othello explains that he and Brabantio had struck up a friendship and that Brabantio had often invited him to his house and questioned him about his many adventures around the world.
Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona, had listened to the stories and fallen in love with the Moor. She is a beautiful, intelligent and educated young woman with multiple suitors, but well-guarded by her father. Her response to Othello – the dangers he has encountered and overcome – shows her to have a tender heart and a great capacity for empathy.
Othello sensed her feelings about him and was emboldened to speak out about his love for her. They decided to elope and get married without her father knowing.
Othello explains all that to the Duke. The Duke sends for Desdemona who tells them that she’s a full-grown woman with her own mind and that she loves the Moor more than anything in the world. Doing that demonstrates enormous courage. Urged by the Duke Brabantio reluctantly accepts that but refuses to have her in his house. The Duke agrees that she should go to Cyprus with her husband.
Othello has some trusted officers around him. The two most senior are Michael Cassio, who he has just promoted to be his second in command, and Iago, an ancient – the third-ranking officer. Cassio has until recently been an ancient but was chosen ahead of Iago to be Othello’s lieutenant.
Iago is probably Shakespeare’s most fully realised and most destructive villain. Regarded as honest and trustworthy by Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and the other officers, he is, in fact, hypocritical and vicious, plotting and scheming behind everyone’s back.
The love between Othello and Desdemona is very clear and obvious to all, and in private, too, Othello is tender and loving towards his wife. Iago, angry about life generally, and taking pleasure in manipulating people, decides to poison that love and destroy Othello. He does that by being a close confidant of the general and getting his absolute trust then manipulating him into a position in which he destroys himself. Iago also has the complete trust of Desdemona.
Iago also wants to attack Cassio and devises a plan to kill two birds with one stone. He convinces Othello with engineered ‘evidence’ that Desdemona is having a sexual affair with Cassio. By doing that he plants jealousy into Othello’s mind.
Othello becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is sleeping with Cassio. Iago engineers an incident in a pub by making Cassio drunk and framing him for a small act of violence. Othello demotes Cassio while at the same time becoming very unpleasant to Desdemona.
Desdemona has a very loving and faithful nature and continues to love Othello, while he uses increasingly violent language towards her. Both Desdemona and Cassio appeal to Iago to help them and while pretending to do that he draws them both deeper into his trap.
Othello is eventually driven mad by his jealousy and one night after Desdemona has retired to bed he approaches her and strangles her to death. Even during that horrific event, she continues to declare her love for him.
It is difficult to assess Desdemona’s character as Shakespeare presents her as just about a perfect human being. She is, of course, a woman in the position of almost all Elizabethan women – the possession of her father until ownership is passed to another man in marriage. However, she shows a strong independent streak in choosing to defy her powerful father and marrying where her heart is rather than where her father’s economic interest lies.
Her speech to the Council shows strength and determination, common sense, and commitment. In her marriage, her vow to honour her husband through thick and thin is carried out to the very end. In spite of that, she is basically innocent and unaware of the dangers of life. She is far too trusting and thus herself partly responsible for her fate.
She is inevitably a victim of her times – times in which regardless of her courage and independent spirit, she is destroyed by the men around her.
Top Desdemona Quotes
“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 the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter: but here’s my husband,
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.”
Desdemona’s speech to her father and the council (act 1, scene 3)
“I do perceive here a divided duty.”
“I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.”
“Do not doubt, Cassio,
But I will have my lord and you again
As friendly as you were.”
“I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humors from him.”
“His unkindness may defeat my life
But never taint my love.”
“Beshrew me if I would do such a wrong
For the whole world.”
“Kill me tomorrow; let me live tonight.”