Thursday, 29 November 2012

Is Desdemona a Helpless Victim or One of Shakespeare's Spunky Gals?

Is Desdemona's decision to protect Othello a
sign of weakness? | Alexander Cabanel's
portrait of Desdemona
Desdemona is one of Shakespeare's most interesting female characters. Unlike Katharina, she isn't an obvious rebel, but in her own quieter way, she radically defies the convention of her age.

The first time I read Othello, I found Desdemona to be a disappointingly 'wet' character - ridiculously obedient to a crazed husband, even to the point of protecting him with her dying breath. I believed this to be a sign of great weakness, but I was young and foolish. 

Since then, I've realised that there's much more to Desdemona. And, in fact, far from being wet, she's one of Shakespeare's strongest female characters.

Shakespeare's Source for Desdemona

Interestingly, in Shakespeare’s source material, Un Capitano Moro by Cinthio, ‘Disdamona’(sic), taken from the Greek for ‘unfortunate’, is the only named character. The others are only known by their rank or position. For example, ‘The Moor’ (Othello), ‘The ensign’ (Iago) and ‘The ensign’s wife’ (Emilia).

Why is this interesting? Well, it suggests that Cinthio, like Shakespeare, saw Desdemona's role as important - important enough to give her a name, albeit one that suggests her rather untimely demise.

Desdemona as an Independent Woman

Is Desdemona's biggest mistake marrying for
love? | Irene Jacob and Laurence Fishburne,
Othello (1995)
In many ways, Desdemona is a typical woman of her age. However, she is also an atypical woman of her age. 

According to the conformities of 17th century Europe, Desdemona is considered to be the property of her father. This is illustrated in Iago’s line “…an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”(I.i) The word ‘your' indicating Brabantio’s ownership of his daughter.

Desdemona rebels against the conventions of Venetian society, both patriarchal and sexual, to elope with Othello. Her decision to marry her choice of husband is an act of defiance that is easily overlooked, because it is the norm in modern society. However, during the 17th century, almost all women, but particularly those of noble birth, married men of their fathers’ choosing.

Of course, not only is she strong enough to discard her father’s wishes, but she has the fortitude to defend this choice before the Duke and other prominent men of Venetian society, including Brabantio.

Desdemona as a Wife

Is Desdemona's fate sealed from the very beginning of the
play? |  'Othello and Desdemona' by Alexandre-Marie Colin
However, it would be a mistake to think that Desdemona only married Othello to break with convention and separate herself from her father. 

Although she is young, her decision to marry appears to be solely motivated by love; there doesn't seem to be a desire to distress her father. This is made clear in her heartfelt statement, "I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/And to his honours and his valiant parts/Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate."(I.iii)

Nevertheless, it becomes clear throughout the play that Othello knows relatively little about Desdemona. What he does know is that she has betrayed her father and it is perhaps this streak of independence in her nature that worries him. 

After all, it is reasonable to assume that Iago’s accusations alone would not be enough to cause such jealousy in Othello. Iago’s calculated plan involves playing on Othello’s, already present, insecurities. More on that can be read here.

The Tragic Role of Desdemona

As mentioned above, the name Desdemona comes from Greek for ‘unfortunate’ or ‘ill-fated’. This notion of Desdemona’s tragic fate is also suggested in Othello’s “O ill-starred wench…”(V.ii) 

Is Desdemona a helpless victim or one of Shakespeare's
strong women? | Suzanne  Clotier in Othello (1952)
Of course, during the play’s first performances, it may have been argued that it was Desdemona’s betrayal of her father or her choice to marry outside her race that made her death an inevitability. 

Just as Macbeth brought about his grisly end by acting against the will of God and committing regicide, Desdemona acts against patriarchal convention and nature (apparently). Therefore, she is doomed to perish.

However, there is something very tragic and poignant in the fact that her death is the result of a simple desire to love freely. 

Her final tautological words, “Nobody, I myself.”(V.ii) can be, and often are, interpreted as her protecting Othello with her dying breath. On the other hand, perhaps she realizes that it was her own actions; her wish to be liberated, that led to her death.

What do you think of Desdemona? Is she a victim, just a pawn in Iago's game? Did she bring about her own death or was she simply subject to fate?

This post was original published on Suite101 by the author


  1. Hello S. A. Markham!
    I've just discovered your wonderful blog while researching a Shakespeare project of my own. I am a painter, and for the past few years I've been working on 6 large narrative paintings, each based on one of Shakespeare's plays. I'm almost finished with the project, and I only wish that I'd discovered your blog sooner! Your research and insights are fantastic, and I certainly share your enthusiasm and feminist point of view. I'd like to share the paintings with you, too; they are visible on my website: (You can also find my email address on the website. I tried to email you directly but the address I found did not work). I would love to hear your thoughts if you have time, and look forward to perusing your blog more thoroughly.

    Best wishes, and thanks for your wonderful work

    1. Hello, Katherine.

      Thank you very much for your kind words.

      I've just visited your site, and I really love your work. All of those paintings are fabulous, but I was particularly drawn to the 'Twelfth Night', because you've managed to get so much of the play into that one image. It's great!

      Sorry you weren't able to get hold of me via email. I think it's my fault, because I've made an error in the address. I wouldn't have realised if you hadn't mentioned it, so thanks! I'll fix it.

      Thanks again for getting in touch and for sharing your wonderful pictures. I look forward to seeing more from you!

      Very best wishes,