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Essay about Desdemona

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It is not love that is blind, but jealousy.
Lawrence Durrell

Although there is no definite translation of the name Desdemona, most specialists adhere to the opinion that this Greek name stands either for “Wretchedness” or “unfortunate one” (387-88), or “ill-fated woman.”

It is possible that William Shakespeare, who chose to change the name of most characters of the tale by Geraldi Cinthio for his play “Othello”, left the female protagonist a Greek name with such a meaning, in order to support the tragic tint of her fate.

In Shakespeare’s list of characters Desdemona is presented as Othello’s wife and Brabantio’s daughter. This sets the first controversy in the play and in Desdemona’s character. She has secretly marries the Moor, running away with him and not letting her father know. Here, the first cause of her future suffering is conceived. Desdemona is capable of deception, Shakespeare hints, putting it into her father’s words: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. She has deceived her father, and may thee.” This phrase may be considered the first stone cast to build the block of Othello’s jealousy.

The story of Othello and Desdemona’s acquaintance and falling in love also proves she was curious, sympathetic and sensitive. Her determination to secretly marry Othello must have cost her quite a nerve.

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In her speech before her father, Venetian senator, and the assembled court, Desdemona’s character is depicted in a new way. It shows courtesy and respect but a strong will and determination at the same time. Desdemona is quite smart, this we can conclude from her speech in the part where she is supporting her reasons of preferring Othello instead of her father, and calling it a “duty”, at the same time reminding Brabantio her mother once did the same thing for him, her husband. (Act 1, scene iii, 179-187):

My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
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 loves her husband and there is no doubt about that – she supports this fact throughout the whole play. She defends him before the court and her father; she follows him to Cyprus, where the general of the armies of Venice is sent to protect the island from Turkish invasion. Desdemona also is submissive to her husband and very self-possessed. The best illustration for this statement is in the Act 4, scene I, 189: “I have not deserv’d this” and 196: [Going.] “I will not stay to offend you.” with Desdemona not desiring to fight Othello, after he has struck her groundlessly (in fact).

It is also often heatedly discussed whether Desdemona actually flirts with Iago in Act 2, scene i: “What wouldst thou write of me, if thou should’st praise me?” (“if you had to say something nice about me, what would you say?”) and further discussion about a woman’s worth. This interchange of wits with her husbands’ ancient, also adds up to the general picture of Desdemona’s character. At times she is flirty and applying, at other times – bold and brave, but when it goes about her husband’s jealousy, Desdemona shows strange and inexplicable submissiveness. This is most obviously portrayed in the murder scene, after she is smothered by Othello and still tries to protect her husband.

When Emilia questions “O, who hath done this deed?”, Desdemona’s final words are, “Nobody; I myself; farewell:

Commend me to my kind lord. O! Farewell!” (Act V. scene ii.133–134).

Shakespeare’s play thus depicts Desdemona contradictorily as strong, independent person at the beginning of the play, and as a submissive woman in the end, but indeed a faithful wife along the way. Along the play, she has to defend herself almost all the time – first before the father and the court, and after that – before her husband and his accusations of infidelity.

It is interesting that Desdemona seems to have a presentiment about her imminent death. She asks Emilia, her attendant, to put her wedding sheets on the bed, to bury her in these sheets should she die first.

Moreover, in one of the last scenes depicting Desdemona, she sings a song she learned from her mother’s maid:

“She was in love; and he proved mad
And did forsake her. She had a song of willow.

And she died singing it.
That song tonight
Will not go from my mind” (IV.iii.27–30).

The song seems to foresee the nearest future of Othello going mad and killing Desdemona.
Till the very end she tries to persuade Othello she is “guiltless”. But later she takes his guilt for smothering her and this is another proof of her love to her husband.

Now let us imagine the situation if Othello and Desdemona’s characters were reversed. The question is, would the outcome of their relationship be different? In fact, it might have changed but it also might have been the same. If total change took place – with the Moor becoming submissive and Desdemona – confident and aggressive, the story might have been much more different. It would have been a story of a romantic Moor, hopelessly in love with an obsessed lady, suffering from jealousy. On the other hand, we must not forget of another character, who had influence the course of the play – it’s main villain – Iago. If Iago continued to setting tricks and slandering Othello about his wife’s “infidelity”, the consequences and the end of the story might be exactly the same. But, of course, there would have been no Desdemona taking her husband’s guilt. There definitely would have been the same ending of the Moor’s story. I believe he would have killed himself – for the defamed wife murdered for no reason at all is a depressing story for both a brave warrior and a kind man desperately in love with his wife.

If the characters of the protagonists were completely reversed, we might have faced another “taming of the shrew” (in a positive sense of the comparison). I doubt Desdemona’s behavior would have been too different from her natural at the beginning of the play, but it must have changed – to non-submissiveness and self-protection – in the end.

Othello’s incomprehensible jealousy would not have been treated so calmly and there would have been no such self-sacrificing, when facing rough accusations and even striking. Should there characters have changed, there would be no striking from Othello’s part, I believe.

I still think that the end (Desdemona’s death through smothering or any other way) could have happened anyway. Human history knows millions of cases when a more submissive, silent and loving partner went mad of jealousy and killed the victim (innocent or not). So I would not stick to the idea that if Othello and Desdemona’s characters were reversed, the outcome would have changed significantly.

I believe that jealousy is a feeling that does not depend upon your character or any other element of your personality. It turns the most serene and easy-tempered to beasts, leaving both the jealous person and the victim no chances to save their feelings of love. William Shakespeare, a master of rich characters would have found the way to depict the devastating power of jealousy even if he had been forced to reverse the characters of the protagonists.

Bibliography:

Shakespeare, William, “Othello”. Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism. W. W. Norton & Company. New York, 2003
“Desdemona (Othello).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 28 Oct 2006, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2 Nov 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Desdemona_%28Othello%29&oldid=84279777>.
Desdemona. Greek names for baby. 2 Nov 2006 http://www.thinkbabynames.com/search/0/greek/12
Tresch, Albert. “Zum Namen Desdemona.” Germanisch-Romantische Monatsschrift 17 (1929): 387-388.
Werth, Andrew. “Shakespeare’s “Lesse Greek.” The Oxfordian Volume V 2002: 21.
Durrell, Lawrence. Quotes. Jealousy. 2 Nov 2006. http://en.thinkexist.com/quotes/lawrence_durrell/

 

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