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Shakespeare’s Othello – Othello and the Heroine, Desdemona

Othello and the Heroine, Desdemona

In William Shakespeare’s tragic play Othello we see a very exceptional woman in the person of Desdemona, wife of the general. She, as Cassio says, is a “paragon” of virtues, unlike the other female characters in the drama.

H. S. Wilson in his book of literary criticism, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, discusses Desdemona’s entry into the Moor’s life:

But Othello had not known Desdemona long; he had little knowledge of women in any case; his military life had left scant time for cultivating their society or studying them, before he met Desdemona; and there was a bitter modesty in the man, who thought it quite possible that, for all his greatness and his romantic past, a young girl like Desdemona might hold him but a passing fancy. (64)

In Act 1 Scene1, Iago persuades the rejected suitor of Desdemona, Roderigo, to accompany him to the home of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, in the middle of the night. Once there the two awaken him with loud shouts about his daughter’s elopement with Othello. In response to Iago’s vulgar descriptions of Desdemona’s involvement with the general, Brabantio arises from bed and, with Roderigo’s help, gathers a search party to go and find Desdemona and bring her home.

Once that Brabantio has located Othello, the father presses charges publicly in order to have Desdemona returned:

To prison, till fit time

Of law and course of direct session

Call thee to answer. (1.2)

The proceedings which take place before the Duke of Venice cause the father to permanently lose his daughter, mostly due to Desdemona’s own fluent presentation of her point of view in the city council chamber. This results in Brabantio’s virtual disowning of her and not allowing her to live in his house while Othello’s campaign against the Turks in Cyprus is in progress. Thus it would seem that Desdemona has been living her life with a father who is primarily interested in self and less in daughter.

Entrusted to the ancient’s care and that of his Emilia, Desdemona arrives at the seaport of Cyprus. Blanche Coles in Shakespeare’s Four Giants interprets the protagonist’s very meaningful four-word greeting to Desdemona which he utters upon disembarking in Cyprus:

Othello’s four words, “O, my soul’s joy,” tell us that this beautiful Venetian girl has brought great joy, felicity, bliss to the very depths of his soul.

The Imagery of Othello Talks

The Imagery of Othello Talks

In the tragedy Othello Shakespeare uses imagery to talk between the lines, to set moods, to create a more dramatic impact on the mind of the audience, and for other reasons. Let’s consider the types and impact of imagery.

A surprising, zoo-like variety of animal imagery occurs throughout the play. Kenneth Muir, in the Introduction to William Shakespeare: Othello, explains the conversion of Othello’s diction:

Those who have written on the imagery of the play have shown how the hold Iago has over Othello is illustrated by the language Shakespeare puts into their mouths. Both characters use a great deal of animal imagery, and it is interesting to note its distribution. Iago’s occurs mostly in the first three Acts of the play: he mentions, for example, ass, daws, flies, ram, jennet, guinea-hen, baboon, wild-cat, snipe, goats, monkeys, monster and wolves. Othello, on the other hand, who makes no use of animal imagery in the first two Acts of the play, catches the trick from Iago in Acts III and IV. The fondness of both characters for mentioning repulsive animals and insects is one way by which Shakespeare shows the corruption of the Moor’s mind by his subordinate. (21-22)

H. S. Wilson in his book of literary criticism, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, discusses the influence of the imagery of the play:

It has indeed been suggested that the logic of events in the play and of Othello’s relation to them implies Othello’s damnation, and that the implication is pressed home with particular power in the imagery. This last amounts to interpreting the suggestions of the imagery as a means of comment by the author – the analogy would be the choruses of Gre…

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…enhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Shakespeare: The Pattern in His Carpet. N.p.: n.p., 1970.

Heilman, Robert B. “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello.” Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. Leonard F. Dean. Rev. Ed. Rpt. from The Sewanee Review, LXIV, 1 (Winter 1956), 1-4, 8-10; and Arizona Quarterly (Spring 1956), pp.5-16.

Mack, Maynard. Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Muir, Kenneth. Introduction. William Shakespeare: Othello. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. No line nos.

Wilson, H. S. On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

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