Othello and Pitied Desdemona
William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Othello sees the destruction of two very beautiful people because of a sinister intervention by a third. The most beautiful of all is the lovely and irreproachable Desdemona. Let us in this essay consider her character.
In her book, Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, Maynard Mack comments on the heroine’s final song:
Desdemona, preparing for bed on the night that will be her last, remembers her mother’s maid “called Barbary”:
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her. She had a song of “Willow;”
An old thing ‘twas; but it expressed her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song to-night
Will not go from my mind. (4.3.25)
Here time present, in which Desdemona speaks and sings, and time future, in which we know she (like Barbary) is to die from an absolute fidelity to her intuition of what love is and means, recede even as we watch into a lost time past, when Desdemona had a mother and all love’s agonies and complexities could be comprehended in a song. (132)
In Act 1 Scene1, Iago persuades the rejected suitor of Desdemona, Roderigo, to accompany him to the home of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, in the middle of the night. Once there the two awaken him with loud shouts about his daughter’s elopement with Othello. In response to Iago’s vulgar descriptions of Desdemona’s involvement with the general, Brabantio arises from bed and, with Roderigo’s help, gathers a search party to go and find Desdemona and bring her home.
Once that Brabantio has located Othello, the father presses charges publicly in order to have Desdemona returned:
To prison, till fit time
Of law and course of direct session
Call thee to answer. (1.2)
The proceedings which take place before the Duke of Venice cause the father to permanently lose his daughter, mostly due to Desdemona’s own fluent presentation of her point of view in the city council chamber. This results in Brabantio’s virtual disowning of her and not allowing her to live in his house while Othello’s campaign against the Turks in Cyprus is in progress. Thus it would seem that Desdemona has been living her life with a father who is primarily interested in self and less in daughter.
Entrusted to the ancient’s care and that of his Emilia, Desdemona arrives at the seaport of Cyprus. Blanche Coles in Shakespeare’s Four Giants interprets the protagonist’s very meaningful four-word greeting to Desdemona which he utters upon disembarking in Cyprus:
Othello’s four words, “O, my soul’s joy,” tell us that this beautiful Venetian girl has brought great joy, felicity, bliss to the very depths of his soul. This exquisitely beautiful love that has come to a thoughtful, earnest man is indescribably impressive. For him it is heaven on earth. (87)