Desdemona’s Character in Othello: Shakespeare

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She refuses to read in Othello’s dark skin an evil or impure nature.  She says, “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind” (1.3.253).  Rather than seeing his (invisible) mind in his (visible) image, she forms an “image” of him based on her contemplation of his mind.  She completely reverses the syntax of an argument, which would recognize the abstract in the image. Desdemona proclaims it is “to his honors and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (1.3.254-5).  She conceives of Othello precisely as the iconoclastic preachers urged Christians to contemplate God–through abstract properties, rather than sensuous images.  The right way to conceive God is not to conceive any form:  but to imagine in mind his properties and proper effects.   Desdemona does precisely this.  And the religious language she employs–references to the soul and consecration of the soul–direct us towards this theological reading.  Most notably, Desdemona is won by Othello “converted” to believe, according to the parallel we are following his personal story, rather than by sight.  For her, faith does come by hearing rather than gazing.  But that does not mean that Jan Kott’s notion of Desdemona as “sexually obsessed with Othello” (118), terrifying him with her capacity for erotic love is correct.

She appears so forthright and honest in the first three Acts but then seems to take on a new character in Acts IV and V, submitting even to the point of death to her husband’s autocratic and ireful impulses. Desdemona becomes an enigma because of her “peculiar passivity” in the last two Acts. However, there are stronger lines of continuity than discontinuity in her representation, and that the central feature of her identity stretching over the whole is her inability to stop loving Othello.

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