Othello: Desdemona the Wonderful
The innocent and charming personality of the wife of the general in William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Othello can hardly be rivaled – and yet she died the victim of a horrible murder. Let’s consider her case in this essay.
Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar in “The Engaging Qualities of Othello” comment on the virtue within the innocent wife of the Moor, and how pain came into her life:
Desdemona is warmhearted, tender, faithful, and much in love with her husband. No thought is further from her mind than the infidelity that Iago suggests to Othello. The suspense of the play increases as we watch Iago subtly poison Othello’s mind and witness Desdemona’s bewilderment, despair, and ultimate death, and this suspense is retained until the last lines when the spectator is left to imagine the tortures awaiting Iago, who is dragged off the stage to judgment.(129)
Just how innocent is the heroine? Robert Di Yanni in “Character Revealed Through Dialogue” examines the dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia, and finds that it reveals the former’s innocence:
In this dialogue we not only see and hear evidence of a radical difference of values, but we observe a striking difference of character. Desdemona’s innocence is underscored by her unwillingness to be unfaithful to her husband; her naivete, by her inability to believe in any woman’s infidelity. Emilia is willing to compromise her virtue and finds enough practical reasons to assure herself of its correctness. Her joking tone and bluntness also contrast with Desdemona’s solemnity and inability to name directly what she is referring to: adultery.(122)
Angela Pitt in “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies” comments on Desdemona as the ideal wife:
Handbooks of the period explain in some detail what is required of the ideal wife, and Desdemona seems to fulfill even the most conservative expectation. She is beautiful and also humble:
A maiden never bold
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself. (I.iii.)
Her concern for Cassio shows her generosity, for she will intercede for him with Othello. She is wise, and also a ‘true and loving’ wife – ‘the sweetest innocent that e’er did lift up eye’. (44-45)
David Bevington in William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies describes the depth of virtue within this tragic heroine:
We believe her [Desdemona] when she says that she does not even know what it means to be unfaithful; the word “whore” is not in her vocabulary. She is defenseless against the charges brought against her because she does not even comprehend them, cannot believe that anyone would imagine such things. Her love, both erotic and chaste, is of that transcendent wholesomeness common to several late Shakespearean heroines [. . .]. Her “preferring” Othello to her father, like Cordelia’s placing her duty to a husband before that to a father, is...