In William Shakespeare’s play Othello, the main character is a man named Othello. He is a Moor, a man with dark skin, who has earned his way to the rank of commanding general in Venice. The play opens with Othello, appearing in nightclothes before an angry mob, trying to defend himself against the accusation that he has shamed the daughter of a wealthy Venetian merchant by joining her in bed.
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Iago, another character, helps to incite the mob, but Desdemona appears next to Othello, telling them that she is absolutely devoted to Othello and the two of them are married. It is one of the things that Shakespeare is praised for that these two characters are able to demonstrate such strong emotion.
Their love for each other is seen in their unwavering devotion in this first test of their relationship as they face down the town. However, even this intense emotion, perhaps especially this sort of intense emotion, can easily work against itself. This is demonstrated throughout the play as Iago carefully manipulates Othello’s perceptions, playing off of his insecurities and enflaming his jealousies to the point of violence.
Unaware of what is happening, Desdemona continues to show her fierce devotion to her husband which both blinds her to the truth of Othello’s murderous emotions and feeds them. In the end, both Desdemona and Othello are blinded by their emotions, preventing them from seeing reality which leads to their deaths.
Even before Desdemona appears in the play, it is clear to the audience that she loves Othello beyond all reason. Although much of this idea is perhaps lost on a modern audience, Shakespeare’s audience would have been shocked at the idea that a young girl of good breeding would think to marry someone without her father’s approval or knowledge and that she would marry a man of a different race at a time when that was rare.
She is not a bad girl, though, as she shows her father sincere devotion as soon as she comes on stage. She tells him, “To you I am bound for life and education; / My life and education both do learn me / How to respect you: you are the lord of duty; / I am hitherto your daughter” (I, iii, 182-85). In these lines, she recognizes the care and devotion he’s given her, acknowledges the gifts he’s bestowed upon her and admits that up to this point, she belonged entirely to him.
However, she then says that her duty has been transferred to Othello, who she has taken as her husband. If it is thought that perhaps race didn’t mean anything to the people back then, Desdemona’s father’s reaction to her marriage removes any doubt. This is something Desdemona apparently doesn’t feel is important even though it will limit her social circle. These considerations continue to illustrate the degree of dedication Desdemona feels for Othello.
As Othello begins to express his jealousy, Desdemona does nothing to condemn his behavior. Instead, she agonizes trying to figure out what she might have done to upset him. She never thinks perhaps he is acting unjustly, irrationally or improperly nor does she think that her promises to Cassio might have a role in Othello’s strange behavior. Because her love for Othello is so strong, it doesn’t occur to her to consider he might suspect her intentions regarding Cassio.
Knowing him to be a just man and a capable leader, she cannot believe he would think such things of her or of his once-favorite. This strong emotion for him coupled with her puzzlement over his recent behavior makes it impossible for her to realize the dangerous state of Othello’s emotions or their nature. However, even in the final moments before she dies, Desdemona continues to express love for her husband and satisfaction at her choice for marriage.
Unlike Desdemona, who seems to have a pure and innocent nature, Othello allows jealousy and suspicion to rule him throughout most of the play despite his own innate innocence. In the opening scene, Othello shows why he was able to achieve his high rank even though he was a stranger to the Venice society.
He is a strong adherent to the military code of honor. This code of honor meant strong adherence to a specific set of expected behaviors which included honorable combat among matched foes, adherence to home society laws, fundamental trust of fellow soldiers and an action-oriented approach to life.
In defending Desdemona and his marriage, Othello shows his appreciation for this code in his willingness to argue and defend his position while refusing to take up arms against a man vastly inferior in fighting ability and family by marriage. The higher a person’s rank, the more he is expected to honor the code and, as seems the case with Othello, the harder it is for him to conceive of someone else breaking it.
Whereas Desdemona starts the play arguing for their love, Othello receives the first blow to his faith in his wife. This blow comes from her father as he expresses his own fit of rage. He warns Othello, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee” (I, iii, 292-93). Iago exploits Othello’s soldier’s code after hearing the father’s word as he talks about Othello’s “free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so; / And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose / As asses are” (I, iii, 393-96). Thus, Iago uses this moment of doubt and suspicion and his own knowledge of Othello’s inner beliefs and insecurities as a means of poisoning the newlyweds.
Rather than understanding Desdemona’s attempts to reunite him to his friend for what they were, Othello hears the ideas that Iago has put in his head about a possible relationship between Desdemona and Cassio. When he sees Desdemona talking earnestly with Cassio, he assumes the worst even though her words, “Do not doubt, Cassio, / But I will have my lord and you again / As friendly as you were” (III, iii, 5-7), reveal her pure intentions and Othello’s central role in their minds.
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Despite the nobility and command Othello demonstrates at the beginning of the play, his emotions regarding Desdemona are too overpowering for him to see clearly. Not until his rage is worked out in action does Othello calm down enough to start thinking again. As he learns of her true innocence and his own foolishness, he understands that he cannot live with the tremendous guilt at having killed his love and he runs himself through with his sword.
Both Desdemona and Othello are too blinded by their emotions to be able to see truth. Desdemona tries to demonstrate through her words and actions that she loves Othello and only Othello, but she is unable to see that her attempts at reassurance are only making the misunderstanding deeper. Othello, because of the way in which Iago has painted the scene, is only capable of seeing the ugliness that Iago has suggested.
He accepts it because he has survived by listening to his men before anyone and believing Iago has the same fierce loyalty to his captain that Othello feels for his superior. Had Desdemona not been blind to Othello’s doubts of her love, she might have found a way to reach him. Had Othello not been blinded by his complicated emotions forcing him to fall back on his soldier’s code, he would not have reached the point of violence
Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). New York: Penguin Books, 1969.