Last Updated on September 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704
Desdemona is the daughter of Brabantio, a man of some reputation in Venice. As such, she is part of the upper class of Venetian society. Desdemona elopes with Othello and accompanies him to Cyprus. After Cassio is discredited, she pleads for his reinstatement, an act which her husband interprets as...
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Desdemona is the daughter of Brabantio, a man of some reputation in Venice. As such, she is part of the upper class of Venetian society. Desdemona elopes with Othello and accompanies him to Cyprus. After Cassio is discredited, she pleads for his reinstatement, an act which her husband interprets as proof of Iago's insinuations that she is unfaithful. She is ultimately murdered by Othello.
Apparently, Desdemona has many suitors vying for her hand in marriage, but she freely chooses to marry Othello, a decision which greatly upsets Brabantio, Iago, and Roderigo. She testifies before the Venetian senate that the story Othello has told about their mutual attraction is true. In that story, Othello recounts how he was invited to Brabantio's home to tell of his journeys to foreign places. Being forced to leave the room on frequent errands for her father and his guests, Desdemona was unable to hear the full account of Othello's exploits in those foreign places. But she was intrigued, and on another occasion Othello told her his story in full. Othello tells the duke and the senators, "She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd, / And I lov'd her that she did pity them" (I.iii.167-168). Despite what her father and Iago might think, Desdemona does seem to love Othello truly; and, despite Othello's jealous suspicions, she is faithful to him until the end.
In one sense, though, Desdemona presents a contradiction, some critics have argued. After Othello accuses her of being unfaithful, she asks Emilia, "Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?" (IV.iii.63). Emilia responds realistically that she would not be unfaithful for a trifle, but the world is a big place. While Desdemona's question reveals her innocence, her past actions have shown her to be capable of some level of deception: she secretly elopes with a man of whom her father greatly disapproves. She explains to Brabantio that she has only transferred her love and allegiance from father to husband, just as her mother had done. While many audiences do not judge Desdemona too harshly for this, many critics maintain that through these actions, Desdemona demonstrates the capacity to deceive men. It is this perceived capacity that Iago exploits most aggressively. He virtually seals Desdemona's fate when he tells Othello, "She did deceive her father, marrying you; / And when she seem'd to shake and fear your looks, / She loved them most" (III.iii.206-208).
As he contemplates killing Desdemona, Othello echoes Iago's words, "Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men" (V.ii.6). For Iago and Othello, Desdemona can only be totally pure when she can no longer experience desire, when men no longer need to fear that that desire will betray them—in death.
Desdemona has been described by some critics as a Christlike figure. Like the love Christ extends to humankind, Desdemona's love for Othello is freely given and need not be defended by reasoned explanations. Othello's great failing is that he does not simply accept Desdemona's love but finds reasons to think himself unworthy of her. He gives in to Iago's suggestions that Desdemona could not freely love one who was so different from her in ''clime, complexion, and degree'' (III.iii.230). After Othello has killed Desdemona, Emilia asks who has done such a deed. Desdemona revives and says, "Nobody; I myself. Farewell! / Commend me to my kind lord" (V.ii.125-126), echoing the unselfishness and forgiveness of Christ's dying words on the cross.
Desdemona has traditionally been seen as the "good" that contrasts with Iago's "evil." Generally overshadowed by the powerful and enigmatic figures of Othello and Iago, Desdemona has often been judged an uncomplicated character: an idealized goddess or a passive, undeveloped figure. Recently, however, critics have begun to detect a more intricate portrait of Desdemona as a vital, courageous, and sensual woman. Significantly, it is Desdemona rather than Othello who initiates their romance and courtship. In addition, she exhibits a remarkable boldness and independence in marrying Othello in the face of her father's objections. However, she pays a price for her freedom: isolated from her familiar Venetian surroundings, she becomes dependent upon Othello; and when his love turns to violence, she is alone and defenseless