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Othello at the RSC
Othello at the RSC

Othello and Desdemona’s romance

Before the audience meets Desdemona, it learns a few key things about her: she spends her time doing household chores, she pities and loves Othello for his bravery and for overcoming servitude and battle and she willingly defied her father’s will by running away with Othello. This is clearly not a timid young woman, as we have already discussed in Week 3.

However, there are certain warnings that are to become significant in the unravelling of the tragedy. First, Desdemona runs away from her father’s house at night. This does not seem like virtuous behaviour. As the only child of a respected senator, there are naturally many hopes resting on her marriage to a suitable man. As an heiress, moreover, we might imagine her having a large, expensive wedding at which important senators and members of the state are present. Instead, Desdemona opts for a clandestine wedding in the middle of the night, not with a young Venetian, but with a Moorish soldier. As a soldier, Othello is commanded to remain with the army: where it goes, he follows. A man who travels and lives in a military camp hardly seems like a suitable match for a sheltered, wealthy heiress.

Another set of clues about tragic inevitability comes in the court scene, during Othello’s beautiful and descriptive retelling of his meetings with Desdemona. He tells the court and her father:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.

These lovers have been brought together through mutual sympathy. But this perfect relationship is built on something unsettling. By his own admission, Desdemona fell in love with Othello’s bravery and for surviving many sorrows and tribulations. She pities his past. Othello, in turn, loves the fact that she admires him. From his point of view, he has a loving, obedient wife who admires his ability to endure dangers. For Desdemona, she has married an adventurous warrior, capable of defeating enemies and surviving oppression. The tragic irony kicks into play when Othello believes that his wife transfers her admirations to another soldier, and when Desdemona, in turn, ‘becomes the antagonist of her warrior-like husband. Ostensibly, this may seem romantic; but this relationship has troubles from the outset.

While thinking about Shakespeare’s use of words, you may also want to do some of the following:

As you read and watch the above you might like to consider:

  • How Othello and Desdemona’s actions and language at the outset of the play develop their characters in the audience’s mind but also lay out the trajectory for these two characters.

  • The differences in the way Othello and Desdemona communicate and the importance of language in building each of the relationships in the play.

    • For example, thinking back to Week 3 of the course, before their conversation in Act 4 Scene 3, how developed do you think the relationship between Desdemona and Emilia is?

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This article is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham