Analyze Desdemona’s role in the play. To what extent is she merely a passive victim of Othello’s brutality? How does her character change when she is not with Othello? SUGGESTED ANSWER:
At the end of Othello, Desdemona seems to be the most passive kind of victim. Smothered, deprived of breath and of words by her husband, she is totally overwhelmed by Othello’s insane jealousy and physical strength. But before her murder, Desdemona is remarkable for showing more passivity when her husband is not around and more assertiveness when he is.
Desdemona’s first speech, in which she defends her recent marriage, is confident and forthright. When she gives it, she is the only female character onstage, surrounded by powerful men who include the duke, her husband, and her father, but she is not ashamed to assert her belief in the validity of her desires and actions. Unfortunately, Iago recognizes Desdemona’s forthrightness and uses it against her. He exploits her willingness to demand and justify what she wants by making Cassio her cause and, simultaneously, Othello’s enemy. In Act III, scene iii, Desdemona asks Othello to forgive Cassio and persists, in spite of Othello’s rising consternation, until her husband declares, “I will deny thee nothing” (III.iii. 41–84). Her courage is apparent in her refusal to search for the missing handkerchief in Act III, scene iv; in her willingness to shout back at Othello as he abuses her in Act IV, scene i; and in her insistence upon her innocence in Act V, scene ii. Her audacity seems to infuriate Othello all the more, as what he takes to be shameless lies convince him that she is unremorseful in what he believes to be her sin.
The terrible effect of Othello’s brutality is most obvious in Desdemona’s scenes with Emilia. Emilia is cynical and bawdy, and she gives Desdemona every possible opportunity to bad-mouth Othello. Men, she says in Act III, scene iv, “are all but stomachs, and we all but food. / They eat us hungrily, and when they are full, / They belch us” (III.iv.100–102). Later, she insults Othello: “He called her whore. A beggar in his drink / Could not have laid such terms upon his callet [whore]” (IV.ii.124–125). And, at the end of Act IV, scene iii, she gives a lengthy discourse about the virtues of infidelity. Desdemona, however, never says anything worse than “Heaven keep the monster [jealousy] from Othello’s mind” (III.iv.158). With her closest confidante, Desdemona does not speak ill of her husband, even as she shows the strain of his terrible abuse.
OTHER QUESTIONS HIGHLIGHTING GENDER: EMILIA Discuss the role of Emilia. How does her character change during the course of the play? Pay particular attention to moments when Emilia decides to be silent and when she decides to speak. What is the effect of her silence about the handkerchief? Do we forgive this silence when she insists on speaking in spite of Iago’s threats in the final scene? http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/othello/study.html#explanation3