Desdemona’s Character in Shakespeare’s Play Othello
Desdemona’s physical and vocal absence from the opening scenes speak volumes about women’s place in seventeenth century Venetian society. It is through Desdemona’s absence that we are able to conjure up our own mental image of her based on what we have heard. Upon hearing the news of his daughter’s love for Othello, Barbantio begins to make accusations about what Othello has done “thou hast enchanted her”, “she is abused, stol’n from me”. This is a clear indication that Barbantio views his daughter as more of a possession rather than a person who is capable of independent thought and feelings.
Barbantio then goes on to dismiss Othello and Desdemona’s relationship as “against all rules of nature”, referring to Othello’s skin colour.
However, Barbantio is not alone in his feelings, as his views on inequality for women are shared across the whole male orientated society. This is apparent throughout the play as Desdemona is not referred to by her name, but by “she”, “my daughter”, “fair lady” and “young maid” bringing about a lack of identity for Desdemona.
She is seen in relation to the man she is with.
Viewing Desdemona, as an innocent victim is something we as an audience are tricked into doing before we even meet her. Barbantio claims his daughter was “corrupted by spells and medicines” and accuses Othello of witchcraft to win his daughter’s love “thou hast practised on her with foul charms”. This shows that Barbantio views her as innocent and not capable of following her own feelings.
When given the chance, Othello explains how his and Desdemona’s love came about “she gave me for my pains a world of sighs”, “she loved me for dangers”, “I loved her that she did pity them”. Surprisingly Othello remains calm when explaining his account to Barbantio and seems confident in his relationship with Desdemona despite the fact that she may love him out of pity. On hearing Othello’s account, Barbantio requests that Desdemona tell her side of the story “I pray you hear her speak”.
Barbantio, expecting Desdemona to follow her education as opposed her emotions is shocked to see his daughter rebel. Desdemona decides that just as her mother did to her father, she now must do the same to her father “you are lord of all my duty”, “but here’ my husband”, “and so much duty as my mother showed to you, preferring you before her father”,”I may profess due to the moor my lord”. Desdemona’s rebellious behaviour brings about a more confident and rounded side of her, a side with an identity as opposed to an inanimate possession. Viewing Desdemona as an innocent victim of malice definitely does not do justice to Shakespeare’s portrayal of her as a more complex and more rounded character.
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