Is Desdemona merely a passive victim of Othello's brutality, or does she display autonomy and courage?
Desdemona does display autonomy and courage, especially at the beginning of the play, by going against the wishes of her father and eloping with Othello. It becomes apparent, that although Desdemona's father might consider Othello a welcome guest in his home and somewhat of a novelty, he does not consider Othello to be good husband material. The many racial slurs thrown about, particularly by Iago, indicate that the majority of people accept Othello only to a certain point and no further. She does become more passive in the play when she responds rather meekly to Othello striking her. She says she does not deserve it but then says nothing more. Some say that she was extremely passive in her death, but the text does prove that she tries to argue for her innocence and avoid her own death. She displays courage as well in trying to protect Othello from the consequences of his actions by telling Emilia that she is responsible for her own death.
Unfortunately, Desdemona lived during a time when women had their "place" and could not exercise much autonomy. The societal rules of that time period for women involved being submissive to their husbands. Desdemona did, however, attempt to prove to her husband that she did not cheat on him by pleading with him and imploring him to believe her. Emilia also tried to "take up" for her, but it did no good. Desdemona also becomes aware that she will die and she does not try to fight Othello when he kills her. She could have fought him with all of her might or she could have run away from Othello before bedtime; however, she chose to do as he wished and die knowing that she was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Desdemona represents the complexity that is "woman". She exemplifies both dominating and docile character traits. Here is a woman, who by all accounts, is always suspect by those who are suppose to love her. To face that reality everyday would take tremendous courage. Ironically, Desdemona's courage is born from her purity of heart. She decided to marry Othello because she loved him, at a time when love was of little consequence. The fact that Desdemona decides how her death will be known indicates she is the one who will decide her immorality. In this case she demonstrates autonomy over her very existence. It can be argued that Desdemona was the only one who ultimately had power over her.
Desdemona is a mass of contradictions. One of these contradictions are the vary degress of passiveness and courage she displays. In Act 1 scene 3, her defence of her husband shows great strength of will. 'Father I do perceive her a devided duty' she states. In addition in Act 4 scene 1 when she is struck by Othello she ritiously states 'I did not deserve that'. However, apart from these instances of courage and autonomy, her passive acceptance of her death and her unwillingness to see othelo's jelousy is also evident. This servitude was a key contributer to her death in Act 5, scene 1