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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: In order to really analyse the character of Desdemona, and to consider the question of how responsible she is for what happens to her, we need to go back to the Renaissance period and consider perceptions of women. We also need to think back to last week and what we learned about attitudes to race in order to understand what it would have meant for a young woman to marry without her father’s consent. And still more, what it would have meant for her to marry a Moor. Renaissance England was a patriarchal society, meaning that men were seen as the dominant figures.

Skip to 0 minutes and 43 seconds A woman was essentially viewed as the property of a man, passed from her father to husband, often with little personal choice in the matter. Although there was a growing perception that marriage could, and even should be, the product of love, rather than merely a means of economic or social gain, in the upper classes parental guidance in marriage remained strong. Desdemona explicitly acknowledges this divided loyalty to her father and husband when she first speaks in Act One, Scene Three, saying to her father–

Skip to 1 minute and 14 seconds DESDEMONA: My noble father, I do perceive here a divided duty. 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. But he is my husband.

Skip to 1 minute and 38 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: The problem is that she’s violated the loyalty due to her father by marrying in secret without his consent. Brabantio’s outrage in Act One arises not only from his sense that Desdemona’s match is inappropriate, but also from his view that his fatherly duties and rights have been denied, and that his daughter has betrayed him. She has, after all, married his friend without asking his consent.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 seconds BRABANTIO: She is abused. Stolen from me, and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks. For nature so preposterously to err, being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, sans witchcraft, could not.

Skip to 2 minutes and 16 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: On leaving the Senate in Act One, Scene Three, he utters the fateful words, “Look to her, Moor. If thou hast eyes to see, she has deceived her father, and may thee.” So Desdemona has gone against the expectations of her sex and her duty in terms of her marriage. Nevertheless, Brabantio persists in describing her in terms of the ideal Renaissance woman, pious, modest, and obedient.

Skip to 2 minutes and 46 seconds BRABANTIO: Maiden, never bold, of spirit so still and quiet that emotion blushed herself.

Skip to 2 minutes and 52 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: In his view her disobedience can only be ascribed to bewitchment at the hands of Othello. He turns on him, with the words, “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her.” So in Brabantio’s eyes, much like those of the critic AC Bradley, Desdemona is the helpless party. Indeed, before we meet Desdemona in the play, we hear about her from others. And the picture that is constructed is an idealised one. Roderigo speaks of her duty and beauty. Othello of the gentle Desdemona. Brabantio of her as a maid so tender, fair, and happy, a delicate youth, perfection, gentle mistress.

Skip to 3 minutes and 38 seconds And yet, Desdemona’s evident choice in the matter of her marriage, and her feisty behaviour in Act One, Scene Three, seems to undermine these praises, and suggest what would have been, in the Renaissance, an unconventional female independence, a personality quite different from that attributed to her by her father. When called before her father and the senators in Act One, Scene Three, her arguments are bold. She states quite clearly to the Duke that she does not wish to reside with her father, but to go to Cyprus with Othello.

Skip to 4 minutes and 11 seconds DESDEMONA: That I did love the Moor to live with him. My downright violence and storm of fortunes may trumpet to the world.

Skip to 4 minutes and 19 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: She describes her love for Othello not in quiet and still terms, but as “my downright violence and scorn of fortunes.” The descriptions we hear of her at the start of the play seem to conform to gender expectations in the Renaissance, a mild, gentle, chaste woman. And yet, as soon as we see her, she proves herself to be assertive, sexually liberated, and witty. And yet, by the time we get to the willow scene, she seems subdued, obedient, and resigned. Many critics have argued that Desdemona becomes passive and subservient. However, Carol Thomas Neely asserts that “Desdemona’s spirit, clarity, and realism do not desert her entirely in the latter half of the play as many critics and performances imply.”

Skip to 5 minutes and 10 seconds This is something that Joanna Vanderham, who’s playing Desdemona in the current RSC production, believes passionately.

Skip to 5 minutes and 17 seconds JOANNA VANDERHAM: Desdemona’s assertiveness is something that I have embraced and fought for. And so, in my opinion, she is assertive till she dies. There’s maybe, one moment where she’s not either fighting for her love or fighting for her life. You know, she walks in One, Three, and she says, “My noble father, I do perceive here a divided duty.” She asserts herself. And then she says, “That I did love the Moor to live with him.” She asserts herself again. And then they end up in Cyprus, and there’s a fight, and, you know, people are wounded. And she runs into the street and says, what’s the matter? You know, she asserts herself even in a situation that isn’t maybe her norm.

Skip to 6 minutes and 24 seconds And then Cassio is sort of– His lieutenancy is taken away from him. And she says, “I will, my lord in you again. I will have my lord in you again, as friendly as you were.” I can do this. I have access to him.

Skip to 6 minutes and 44 seconds So this is right the way through the first half. And then the end of the second half, after the interval, she says, “I will go seek him.” You know, she still thinks that she has access to him. And there is maybe a question there in the beginning of Act Four where she doesn’t know what’s going on. But she tries to figure it out. Even then she thinks that she can figure it out and fix it. She says, “What ignorant sin have I committed? What have I done? I don’t know what I have done. I am ignorant to my fault. Tell me and I can fix it.”

Skip to 7 minutes and 25 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: So what happens in the play to affect her downfall? Martin Rosenberg puts it simply. “She meddles in her husband’s business, presses him to reinstate his dismissed officer, presses him at the worst moment when he most needs her understanding. Finally, she lies to him, and destroys their hope of love.” All of this is, of course, true. The moment when she utters her famous lie about the handkerchief. “It is not lost, but what and if it were?” She deceives her husband, and unknowingly further implicates herself in a crime that she’s not committed. So is Desdemona responsible for her own downfall?

Skip to 8 minutes and 7 seconds JOANNA VANDERHAM: I just don’t think she is. We, in our production, have played with the idea that she and Cassio are close, and that they have a previous history. You know, they’ve grown up together, and they know each other. But his jealousy is so unfounded. It is so, I think, incredibly belittling of her, because of the way that she loves him, the amount that she loves him, and the capacity that she has to love him. For him to assume that it’s possible for her to love somebody else is offensive.

Skip to 8 minutes and 44 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: Of course, the catalyst in all this is Iago. And Iago plays on Renaissance prejudices and fears about women’s sexuality, that women’s sexuality needs to be controlled or they will become unfaithful. In doing so, he convinces Othello of his wife’s sexual infidelity. For critic and historian Lisa Jardine, the crisis point in the play’s presentation of Desdemona comes in Act Four, Scene Two, when Othello publicly defames Desdemona. In front of Emilia he calls her a whore, saying, “I took you for that cunning whore of Venice that married with Othello.” Emilia outraged then repeats this same accusation in front of Iago. “He called her whore. A beggar in his drink could not have laid such terms upon his callet.”

Skip to 9 minutes and 33 seconds Desdemona herself cannot even bear to utter the term, claiming “I cannot say whore. It does abhor me now I speak the word.” And as Lisa Jardine says, in spite of her private protestations of innocence, Desdemona does nothing formally to restore her now actually impuned reputation. Even on her deathbed she doesn’t speak out. When asked by Emilia, “Oh, who has done this deed,” she responds, “Nobody. I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind Lord. Oh, farewell.”

Skip to 10 minutes and 10 seconds JOANNA VANDERHAM: Gosh. Having responsibility for her own downfall is something that I have been considering as the play has gone on. And only recently have I been exploring playing her final lines– Emilia asks who has done this, when she’s strangled. And she says “Nobody. I. Myself. And if that is an attempt to cover up and save Othello in her dying breath, or if it is an acceptance of blame. The latter is incredibly hard for me to play. But I do think it is the more interesting choice.

Skip to 10 minutes and 52 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: This is an interesting moment, because arguably Emilia is partly to blame. If she’d not taken the handkerchief to give to her husband, then Iago’s plan would have been flawed. And yet, for a wife to do her husband’s bidding in Renaissance England was an expectation. Emilia says–

Skip to 11 minutes and 13 seconds EMILIA: I’m glad I found this napkin. This was her first remembrance from the Moor. My wayward husband hath a hundred times wooed me to steal it. But she so loves the token. For he conjured her, she should ever keep it. That she reserves it evermore about her to kiss and talk to. I’ll have the work taken out, and give it to Iago. What he will do with it, heaven knows, not I. I nothing but to please his fantasy.”

Skip to 11 minutes and 40 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: So she acknowledges that her husband is wayward. And yet, she asserts that she doesn’t know what to do except to fulfil his desires. So why does Emilia steal the handkerchief?

Skip to 11 minutes and 53 seconds AYESHA DHARKER: I think she does it to get Iago’s attention. And it’s interesting, because her first instinct is to say I will have it copied, and give him the copy. But when she sees him, I think she’s just so– Her instinct is to go, here you go. Look, I’ve got something. I’ve got a toy. And I don’t think it’s any more than that. And even when she sees the conversation between Desdemona and Othello about the handkerchief, I think it’s horrifying to her that this little artefact, you know, this napkin that she put no attention on, has become this significant thing.

Skip to 12 minutes and 34 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON-WOODALL: To what extent then is Emilia to blame for the outcome of the play?

Skip to 12 minutes and 39 seconds AYESHA DHARKER: I think Emilia is to blame for the tragedy of the play. Not wholly. But I think that the things that contribute to her culpability are her denial about what Iago actually is, about her not speaking up when she’s made the mistake of stealing this handkerchief.

Gender expectations

In this video Abigail focuses on the expectations of Renaissance women, exploring the language and behaviour of Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca in the text. As you watch consider:

  • What the Renaissance perceptions of women were and how this informs your understanding of Desdemona, and her relationships.

  • The nature of Emilia and Iago’s relationship.

Having watched you might also want to ask yourselves:

  • To what extent do you feel that Desdemona becomes more passive throughout the course of the play?

  • To what extent is Emilia to blame for Desdemona’s fate?

Share your thoughts with your fellow learners in the Comments.

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This video is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham