Table of Contents
2. The character of Desdemona
2.1 Desdemona in Othello by William Shakespeare
2.2 Desdemona in Otello by Thomas D. Rice
2.3 A comparison of the character of Desdemona in Othello and Otello
William Shakespeare’s Othello portrays the mixed-race love between Desdemona, a white Venetian beauty, and the Moor Othello, Venice’s general. Mislead by Iago, his ensign and also the play’s villain, Othello develops an unfounded suspicion of his wife Desdemona and his lieutenant Cassio, which results not only in Othello’s suicide, but also in the murder of his wife who, as it turns out, has been innocent of adultery all along. The tragedy thus represents love and good on the one hand (embodied by Desdemona) and the involved problem of jealousy and revenge (personified by Othello) – not least the issue of miscegenation1 – on the other hand.
As many of Shakespeare’s works (which usually are adaptations themselves), Othello, first performed in 1606 (cf. Watts, Acknowledgements 27), has been the basis for numerous subsequent adaptations, such as the burlesque opera Otello by Thomas D. Rice of 1844 (cf. Kahn 121). The opera’s plot is essentially similar to that of the play by Shakespeare, yet a few changes have been made. In Rice’s parody, Otello and Desdemona have a child and Shakespeare’s handkerchief has become a common towel. Yet the most conspicuous alteration is Desdemona’s resurrection after being killed at the end of the play. Apart from that, it appears that the two characters of Desdemona in both Othello and Otello are quite alike. Depicted as a rather subordinate role in both the play and the opera, as compared to her husband and the title character Othello/Otello, Desdemona actually portrays the heroine in both stories. Both become victims of their husbands’ jealousy and finally have to die despite being innocent. When taking a closer look, however, it becomes apparent that the two characters are not that comparable in their personality as initially seems to be the case. In fact, they both gradually reveal themselves as rather different people.
In this paper, I will compare the character of Desdemona in the play Othello by Shakespeare with that in the burlesque opera Otello by Rice. I will first analyze the figure of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello and then in Rice’s Otello – one after another. Next, I will compare the two characters of Desdemona and will explore in which ways their qualities coincide, or rather, in what extent they differ in their personalities. Lastly, I will briefly summarize the different characters of Desdemona in both Othello and Otello.
2. The character of Desdemona
2.1 Desdemona in Othello by William Shakespeare
In William Shakespeare’s Othello, the character of Desdemona is portrayed as a young, beautiful, white Venetian woman of a noble family (cf. Hollindale 48). Throughout the play, Desdemona’s name is invariably accompanied by positive adjectives. For instance, Othello refers to her as “gentle Desdemona” (Shakespeare, 1.2.25),2 Cassio calls her “divine Desdemona” (2.1.73) as well as “virtuous Desdemona” (2.3.311, 3.1.34), Iago names her “fair Desdemona” (4.2.224), while Emilia refers to her as “[s]weet Desdemona” (5.2.122). It is striking that none of the characters simply says Desdemona’s name on its own but instead modifies it with complementary adjectives such as “gentle”, “divine”, “virtuous”, “fair” and “sweet”. Consequently, the audience is encouraged to perceive the character of Desdemona as a pleasant and noble character from the first time her name is mentioned, which is, in fact, even before her actual first appearance.
In the course of the play, the characters retain the positive picture of Desdemona as a “morally perfect and entirely innocent” individual (Rice, Desdemona 209).3 Cassio alludes to her as the “most exquisite lady” (2.3.17), the “most fresh and delicate creature” (2.3.19) – he even calls her “perfection” (2.3.24). Lodovico refers to Desdemona as “an obedient lady” (4.1.242), while Iago illustrates her as “fair and wise” (2.1.129). Emilia describes her as “honest, chaste, and true” (4.2.17), an “angel” (5.2.130), or simply, “the sweetest innocent” person (5.2.200). Desdemona’s husband Othello, naturally before being manipulated by Iago, portrays her as a “fine woman, a fair woman, a sweet woman” (4.1.173-174) who moreover is “virtuous” (3.3.189), “honest” (3.3.228), “gentle” (4.1.187), “[v]ery obedient” (4.1.251), a “beauty” (4.1.199) – in short, “the world hath not a sweeter creature” (4.1.178-179). Taking into account all these descriptions of Desdemona’s appearance and personality by various characters, she is clearly a popular, if not the most popular, character in Othello. Not only her appearance seems attractive (taking into consideration her beauty, fineness, exquisiteness and delicacy), but her personality appears to exude honesty, chastity, fidelity, sweetness, fairness, wisdom, virtuousness and gentleness. Even Desdemona herself presents her person as sincere and faithful, calling herself Othello’s “true and loyal wife” (4.2.35). As a result, the audience, being aware of Iago’s false game, can easily see Desdemona as the “noblewoman” (Jardine 89) of the play. She certainly is “admired or desired by several men throughout the play” (Maillet 104), such as by the soldiers Cassio and Iago as well as by the gentleman Roderigo. Desdemona, however, does not seem to know or care for the other men’s appreciation and continuously remains Othello’s faithful and subordinate wife – even though Iago makes it look like as if she is not.
Moreover, Desdemona proves herself a committed and loyal friend. On the one hand, when Iago shares his “pessimistic view of women” (Rice, Desdemona 211) with his wife Emilia (2.1.109-113) and hereby directly insults her (cf. Neely 219), Desdemona does not keep quiet but immediately stands up for Emilia, disgustedly yelling, “O, fie upon thee, slanderer!” (2.1.114). Showing her indignation (“fie upon thee”) and calling Iago a “slanderer” straightaway, Desdemona defends Emilia from Iago’s negative opinion about women (cf. Neely 219), that is, his degradation of them (cf. Deats 245), not least of Emilia as well. In this moment, Desdemona presents herself as a loyal character and good friend to Emilia, not ignoring her maid’s humiliation by Iago but instead defending her by scolding him. On the other hand, when Desdemona hears about Cassio having lost his lieutenancy, she immediately offers him her help. She promises to “do [a]ll [her] abilities” (3.3.1-2) to restore Cassio and Othello’s friendship so that they are “[a]s friendly as [they] were” (3.3.7). She even goes a step further and “give[s] [him] warrant of [his] place” (3.3.20) even before confronting her husband. When eventually talking to Othello about it, Desdemona earnestly tries to persuade her husband to “call him [Cassio] back” (3.3.52, 3.3.55), reminding him that he “truly loves [Othello]” (3.3.49). She wishes to settle their dispute as soon as possible and impatiently proposes possible times for “when [he shall] come” (3.3.68): “shortly? [...] tonight at supper? [...] tomorrow night; or Tuesday morn; [o]n Tuesday noon, or night; or Wednesday morn” (3.3.57-62). By doing this, Desdemona not only shows her respect for her husband and Cassio’s friendship, but she also reveals herself as a loyal friend to Cassio himself (just as she has to Emilia).
Critics, however, argue that these two scenes make Desdemona appear in a rather bad light. The part in which Desdemona scolds Iago for his negative attitude towards women, including his wife, has been interpreted as Desdemona’s actual ambition to “reassure herself that she does not resemble the universal woman which Iago describes” (Rice, Desdemona 211), which would explain her asking Iago what he thinks of her (as a woman): “What wouldst thou write of me” (2.1.117). Here, Desdemona has been criticized for possibly repressing her subconscious guilt and her need to assure Iago as well as herself that she is not such a demeaned house wife (cf. Deats 245, Rice, Desdemona 211-212) but instead “a deserving woman indeed” (2.1.144-145). Therefore, Desdemona has been understood as striving for self-justification (cf. Rice, Desdemona 212) rather than actually standing up for Emilia. However, since Desdemona is not culpable of anything (at least at this point in the play), I interpret her intervention not as a suppression of her ‘guilt’ (whether conscious or unconscious) but rather as a defense of both herself and Emilia (since both are actually women). As a result, Desdemona does prove herself loyal to herself and to her maid and friend – especially when taking into account that she does speak up for another friend, Cassio, as well.
Her wish and promise to help Cassio, in turn, has also been criticized as a “desire to demonstrate her power over her husband” (Rice, Desdemona 215), particularly because Desdemona asks Cassio to “stay, and hear [her] speak” (3.3.31) when he wishes to “take [his] leave” (3.3.39) since Othello is approaching. Other critics, myself included, argue that Desdemona is simply a good and loyal friend, not having a hidden agenda but instead just wishing to help out a dear friend (cf. Adams 53). She herself says that when she “vow[s] a friendship, [she] perform[s] it [t]o the last article” (3.3.21-22). This statement, in my view, confirms Desdemona’s devotion and the high value she places on friendship (to Emilia and Cassio respectively as well as the one between her husband and Cassio) and proves that Desdemona does not show her allegedly high influence within her marriage. She just does not give up or let go easily when it comes to helping her friends – even if she, by being such a good friend to Cassio, unknowingly “add[s] fuel to his [Othello’s] jealousy” (Preston 215).
Desdemona’s good-naturedness is also reflected in her behavior toward the other characters in the play. Although she belongs to the higher social rank of Venice (with her father as a senator and her husband as a general), she treats all people quite equally – free of any high-handedness. Desdemona does not seem to pay attention to race, class, rank, or hierarchy in general (cf. Neely 224): the Duke of Venice, her father, her husband Othello, the soldiers Cassio and Iago, even her attendant Emilia as well as the clown – all are treated by her “with precisely the same combination of politeness, generosity, openness, and firmness” (Neely 224). Therefore, Desdemona unquestionably represents not only a well-liked but also a fair and righteous character in the play.
Her apparent lack of interest in reputation and hierarchy is also, or rather, most notably, portrayed in her choice of her husband. Being a white woman of a noble family in Venice, Desdemona has made “a gross revolt” (1.1.133) by marrying the ‘socially inferior’ ‘Moor’ Othello and, beyond that, without anyone, not even her father, knowing about it. This so-called “violation” of the “patriarchal familial and social structure” (Orlin 175) does not make her a bad or weak character, though – on the contrary, it characterizes Desdemona as a strong and brave woman who is not afraid of countering Venice’s patriarchal hierarchy (cf. Boyce 155, Orlin 175). Her commitment to the black-skinned Othello supposedly goes “against all rules of nature” (1.3.101) – naturally referring to the early 17th century – yet Desdemona “firmly and courageously stands up to the prejudices” (Boyce 155) of Venice in these times and endears herself to the audience as a tolerant character, free of racial prejudices.
It soon becomes clear that Desdemona is a determined and independent character as well. She did not end up being married to Othello by accident. In fact, she has actually been “half the wooer” (1.3.176) of Othello. He has not simply “w[o]n” (1.3.94) her; instead, Desdemona has been “com[ing] again” (1.3.149) and again to Othello, has been wishing to listen to his stories “with a greedy ear” (1.3.149) and has been giving him “a world of sighs” (1.3.159), that is, “a world of ‘kisses’” (Watts, Notes 136), as it written in another folio. Therefore, Desdemona proves herself to be a woman who strives for what she really wants – in this case, Othello.
1 Miscegenation, pejoratively called amalgamation, describes interracial marriage (cf. Kahn 135).
2 Hereafter, single numbers in parentheses refer to Shakespeare, William. Othello.
3 With the exception of Othello and his manipulator Iago, whose accusations regarding Desdemona are discussed in the further course of this paper.
- Quote paper
- Julie Dillenkofer (Author), 2015, The Character of Desdemona. A Comparison of William Shakespeare’s "Othello" and Thomas D. Rice’s "Otello", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/313783