The Two Faces of D (Act I)
Shakespeare's tragic heroines are few and far between. Though I argued that Portia was a potential heroine in Julius Caesar, I also contended that Shakespeare did not develop her well or thoroughly. The genre was fairly new to him, and he did not fully control either the genre or his sources. His most fully developed female lead in a tragedy is Cleopatra, from the 1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra. Somewhere in the middle is Desdemona, a woman of strength, independence and fidelity, on the one hand, and of self-sacrifice to the point of death on the other. If one wades through the deep waters of feminist verbiage, however (of voices being taken away, of containment experienced, of oppression suffered, of power marginalization), one can say that the common theme linking the various snippets of Desdemona in this play is her utter loyalty to her husband, a loyalty that will even commend him for his kindness after he has strangled her (5.2.125).
What the Men Say About Her
Before Desdemona speaks about herself, the men speak about her. Her first words actually do not come until she has been summoned by the Venetian Senate to answer questions on whether she has willingly consented to marriage with Othello (1.3.180). Before this time, however, she is portrayed both as a sexually loose woman and as an innocent and chaste maiden. The strength of her personality, however, is that when she begins to speak she will quickly show the inadequacy of those characterizations.
In order to enrage her father, Iago says that the "black ram" (Othello), is "tupping" his "white ewe (1.1.89)." Notice that the first reference to Desdemona is as if she is a kind of animal, a lower creature. Brabantio will characterize her as treacherous later in the scene as he urges fathers not to trust their daughters (1.1.169-170). In the next scene, again in order to create an incident, Iago tells Cassio, the new lieutenant, that Othello is staying at the Sagittary because he "to-night hath boarded a land carract"--a large and wealthy trading ship (1.2.50). Now she is an inanimate object, to be appreciated only because of the value of the "cargo" she is carrying.
However, when her father begins to speak about her to the Venetian Senate, he emphasizes her purity. "A maiden, never bold;/ Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion/ Blush'd at herself (1.3.94-96)." Indeed, in Brabantio's mind, her union with Brabantio was "Against all rules of nature (1.3.101)," induced by "mixtures pow'rful o'er the blood (1.3.104)." With two such contrary pictures of Desdemona presented to the reader, we are ready to hear her speak to see if it resolves our uncertainty.
What She Says About Herself
She is not given the luxury of responding to a simple question or to develop dispassionately what she would like to say to the Genevan assembly. Her father asks her a question not unlike Lear asks his three daughters (King Lear 1.1.51-53). "Come hither, gentle mistress,/ Do you perceive in all this noble company/ Where most you owe obedience (1.3.178-180)?" It is a "throw down the gauntlet" question, a question that allows no equivocation, no middle ground, no hemming and hawing. So, Desdemona responds without hesitation: "I do perceive here a divided duty (1.3.181)." But, will she let the division of duty rive her heart and soul? Not at all. With respect to her father, who she says is her "lord of duty" (because her life and education was due to him), she is unequivocal:
"But here's my husband;/ And so much duty as my mother show'd/ To you, preferring you before her father,/ So much I challenge that I may profess/ Due to the Moor, my lord (1.3.185-189)."
Despite her father's immediate railings that he would rather now "adopt a child than get it" (1.3.191--because he would have an excuse if the adopted child was wayward) and that he would have no other child because her transgression would "teach me tyranny,/ To hang clogs on them" (1.3.196-198--would teach him to curtail the children's freedom completely so that he wouldn't be betrayed by them), Desdemona says nothing. But this is the silence of strength. She doesn't feel she has to make her father feel good; to respond to his guilt-inducing tirade by comforting him, yielding on her point even a small bit, saying anything at all.
This silence of Desdemona in the face of parental attack in her father's office (among his fellow Senators) is the most impressive act of Desdemona in the play. It shows that she not only has a mind of her own but has internalized, from her own mother's act of loyalty to Brabantio (by leaving her father) the essence of loyalty to one's husband. She will find her strength and even meet her death because of this loyalty. But even in her death, her seemingly most vulnerable moment, she will manifest a loyalty that exudes strength rather than weakness.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long