Is Desdemona responsible for her own demise?

Expert Answers
susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I'm tempted to ask what you think about Desdemona's culpability.  Sure she trusts her husband.  She has no idea that he suspects of her of infidelity.  Even when he accuses her pointblank of cheating on him, she does not know who with.  She remains innocent throughout the play.

Does this innocence make her guilty of her own demise?  Probably not.  Does it make her more more vulnerable to Othellos' hostility?  Most probably.

But Desdemona does not want to die.  When Othello is suffocating her, She fights very hard to live, to survive.  She begs to say her prayers.  She denies having relations with Cassio.  But beginning in act 4, she becomes more and more a Christfigure:

Unkindness may do much,

And his unkindness may defeat my life

But never taint my love.

Desdemona's love for Othello is absolute.  She dies forgiving Othello, even trying to absolve him by claiming that she actually killed herself.

Is she guilty of her own demise?  You might argue that she is too innocent, too good, too forgiving.  But I think she is the representative of goodness and Iago represents evil.  For Othello, evil was stronger.  Desdemona never really had a chance.


Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with the previous post in terms of questioning what she could have possible done to seal her fate.  If one were to take a very and extremely strict moral reading of Desdemona- one that could very well be wholly unreasonable- one can argue that her relationship with Othello was predicated upon lies and deceit, thereby only guaranteeing a painful and pain ridden end.  The deception of her father through lies, sneaking away with Othello, and establishing a pattern of deceit to commence her relationship with Othello.  This might be a statement that Shakespeare is making on the nature of human relationships.  Namely, that deceit cannot be the opening pretense in a bond between human beings.  Perhaps, one could argue that Desdemona was too late to fully recognize what was happening with Othello, and that to have opened a meaningful and effective dialogue with real results and action focused on addressing Othello's jealousy and his overreliance on Iago could have been.  Yet, again, this is rather unreasonable.  I am not sure that Desdemona is really at fault for what ends up happening to her.

indycar | Student

You could argue that by creating her as the seemingly naive innocent virginal woman, Shakespeare creates a character that does contribute to her own demise. We have to remember that she is a character, so I don't think it is viable to make judgements on how her trusting nature could have contributed to her downfall. Shakespeare created that trusting nature, I think, as a comment on the negative aspects of the ideal Elizabethan woman. If you look at Emilia, while she had a much more obvious contribution to the events of the play, she is also strong, seemingly promiscuous (so the opposite of Desdemona) and at the end shows herself to be independent of the manipulations of her husband, and hence she is spared. Effectively, it is Desdemona's FLAWS of trust and naivety that contribute to her death, flaws that were created in order to highlight how the traditional Elizabethan values relating to women were innappropriate in a real world situation. I say real world because more than anything, Othello is a play based on the human psyche.

That's what I think at least. :)

vickiwhitaker | Student

Thanks to both Susan Smith and "akannan" who responded to my query. I tend to think that Shakespeare created an embodiment of purity and love in Desdemona, and further, that he wanted to juxtapose those qualities vis a vis Iago (embodiment of EVIL). I suspect we are to conclude that these two cannot coexist. Shakespeare does suggest that Evil can be thwarted, if not eradicated, as Iago is left wounded, forced to survive, and accept (or at least be confronted with) the hideous collection of lost lives he is responsible for.

I think a lot of kids today cut their teeth on the existential mantra that life is all about choices and consequences (every adult throws that at them from infancy). In its broadest application the fearless existentialist accepts that every consequence (predictable or wholly unexpected) must be embraced as part of any and every choice. Desdemona chose to love Othello. By so choosing, she also chose every consequence associated with loving him. I think some students might be inclined to assess Desdemona within that existential framework. That becomes problematic when a philosophy/template/model developed centuries later is applied to a piece of literature written long before the philosophy appeared.

I think this is potentially good grist for class discussion. (I certainly enjoyed reading your responses.)