The Role of Desdemona in Shakespeares Othello
The character of Desdemona represents a woman of the 17th century who surpassed the norms of sexual morality set for Venetian women of that time. When Desdemona left the house of her father, Brabantio, to wed the Moor, Othello, it was the first step in redefining her role as a woman. Desdemona, instead of asking her fathers permission, decided on her own to marry Othello. It seems as though Desdemona was breaking away from the strictness imposed by Brabantio. She denied her father any right in choosing or granting allowance to Othello to marry her. Instead she chose the man who she wanted to marry and felt it unnecessary that her father intervene in their relationship. This act of independence by Desdemona tore away the gender barriers of the Venetian patriarchal society and posed a threat to male authority. The other aspect of Desdemonas mutiny was the miscegenation in Desdemona and Othellos marriage. 1The choice of mate made by Desdemona further deviated from the role in which Venetian society would cast her. The traditions of the Venetian society are discovered when Iago speaks to Brabantio and plants both the ideas of miscegeny and loss of power into Brabantios mind. Iago cautions Brabantio:
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
(Oth I. i. 88-90)
These lines highlight the fact that in Elizabethan society, Brabantio, like other fathers, considered Desdemonas body to be his possession while also tapping into the fear of miscegenation that existed in Venice at that time.
2In his book Sex in History, Rattray Taylor describes patriarchal societies in which the power was placed in the hands of men, to be based on father-identifier schemes (77). Taylor explains that children who are father-identifiers, model themselves after their fathers because of their interest in authority and in an attempt to acquire power as their fathers have (314). This can be applied to Desdemonas rebelliousness. Because Brabantio had such immense power over her, Desdemona may have wanted to gain this kind of power herself. Thus she decided to take her relationship into her own hands and ignored the tradition of receiving her fathers approval. Desdemona was striving to play an equal role with the men in the Venetian society.
The aspect of playing the same role as the men in the Venetian society also explains Desdemonas marriage to Othello. Instead of Brabantio taking the initiative in the marriage, Desdemona took the initiative in the courtship because she envied the power that her father had over her and the power of Othellos bravery and masculinity. 3She wished to be a man as brave and as noble as Othello (Holland 253). Desdemonas actions were not necessarily based on the desire to be a man, but more so a desire to have the equal powers of men. By marrying Othello, Desdemona was showing that she was strong enough and educated enough to break the societal confines of passivity for women (Walker 2). However, we must not assume that Desdemona did not love Othello or that she married him only to define herself as a liberated woman.
Desdemonas concise statement about her love was revealed with balance and health when she said:
I saw Othellos visage in his mind,
And to his honours and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
(Oth. III. iii. 250-252)
We can see that she loved Othello for his body and mind, for his reputation and actions, and she consecrated herself to him spiritually and practically and she continued to love him throughout all the events and accusations. Race was not an issue to Desdemona and this was a result of her intelligence and determination to become liberated.
Othello, however, may have been frightened by Desdemonas aggressiveness as a woman. This, along with the misperceptions brought on by Iago, could have led to his changing views of Desdemona. When Othello and Desdemona are first married, Othello spoke nothing but love for Desdemona. Robert Burns poem, A Red, Red Rose best represents Othellos feelings toward Desdemona. The lines: As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, / So deep in luve am