Desdemona's Heart (4.2)
She Who Cannot Stop Loving
Most interpreters of Othello are nonplussed by the character of Desdemona. She appears so forthright and outspoken in the first three Acts but then seems to take on a new persona in Acts IV and V, submitting even to the point of death to her husband's tyrannical and ireful impulses. As one scholar has said, Desdemona becomes a problem because of her "peculiar passivity" in the last two Acts. My thesis here, however, is that there are stronger lines of continuity than discontinuity in her portrayal, and that the central feature of her identity stretching over the whole is her inability to stop loving Othello. Even more broadly stated, the continuity in her character is that she is a woman who cannot live without loving. This love will both inform her "downright violence (1.3.249)" and her "peculiar passivity."
Desdemona in Acts I-III
We cannot help but be impressed by her alacrity and vigorous sense of self in 1.3.* She speaks in opposition to her father on his turf; she
[*I wanted to use the word "prepossession" instead of "alacrity" in describing her, thinking that "prepossession" was the noun equivalent of "prepossessing," which means 'attractive' or 'tending to create a favorable impression.' But, upon examining "prespossession," I see that the two modern significantions of the term are prejudice/bias or preoccupation. Thus, if I had said that I admired Desdemona's "prepossession," I would be saying that I admired her bias or preconceived ideas, which I do not want to say. But it would be too cumbrous for me to have to use "prespossessing" in the noun form in a separate sentence, and I shouldn't have to say "preposseing character" instead of "alacrity" above. Thus, I would suggest that we include a third definition for "prepossession," to be the noun equivalent of "prespossessing" and mean "attractive" or "striking." After all, the Bard whom I interpret invented a lot of the English language....]
tells the Senate why she was enamored of Othello; she states her preference for accompanying him to Cyprus than remaining behind in Venice as a "moth of peace (1.3.256)." We admire her willingness to break socical convention for the sake of love even if it means a split with her father, and we cannot help but think that if Othello was running for office in modern America she would be his most attractive asset. Her willingness to support Cassio so energetically in 3.3 and even her tolerance for Iago's off-color and off-putting remarks about women in 2.1 when she eagerly awaits Othello's arrival in Cyprus bespeak a woman of strong will and temperament, and of resolute and fierce loyalty.
Desdemona in Acts IV-V
Thus it strikes us as surprising at first when we see her become so painfully reticent, retiring, and submissive in 4.1-4.3. Unlike her serving woman Emilia, who smells a rat and speaks her vehement condemnation of the "cogging, cozening slave" who is abusing Othello "to get some office (4.2.132), Desdemona will be more tolerant. "Heaven pardon him (4.2.135)" is her response, rather than "A halter pardon him (4.2.136)!" which is Emilia's take on the matter. As Othello begins to intrude more and more into Desdemona's psychic space and even violate her physical bodily integrity (through the slap), she seems to yield him that space, allowing him in to the ever-more cramped recesses of her life to exact his vengeance without retribution or response.
In fact, her reactions to his insults can best be characterized by the words "shock" or "incomprehension" or "bewilderment" that matures into dismay by the middle of 4.2 and then complete self-abnegation in 4.3. But we ought not to characterize her denial of her sense of self in 4.3, her willingness to obey her husband even to death, as a sign either of personal weakness or of character change. In fact, it is the perfect instantiation of her words in 1.3 when she first publicly declares her love for Othello:
"My heart's subdu'd/ Even to the very quality of my lord (1.3.250-251)."
Scholars love to quote the previous lines ("My downright violence, and sotrm of fortunes"--1.3.249) and the subsequent lines ("I saw Othello's visage in his mind,"--1.3.252) but they do not much focus on this one or another one:
"And to his honors and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate (1.3.253-254)."
That is, as Desdemona declares her love for Othello, she is declaring her fully submissive commmitment to him. Her "downright violence" in eloping with Othello and standing up against her father in the Senate needs to be understood in this context: she is "violent" because love's sweet music impels her to be violent for the sake of her submission to her lord. She will traverse any frontier, oppose any man, face down any obstacle so that she can live out her love to Othello. She is a woman who is in love and must be in love. In this regard, Othello's words about the chaos he will face if he stops loving her could be said about her. Changing the words slightly, she could say: 'Perdition catch my soul/ But I do love him! and when I love him not, chaos is come again (cf. 3.3.90-92).'
This helps explain her protestations of love even when it has become clear to her that her life is in danger. To Iago she says that if she ever delighted in any other form or ever contemplated in thought or performed in deed anything but that she "love him dearly," let "Comfort forswear me (4.2.150-159)." Then, in reflecting on the physical and verbal barrage that irrupted into her life, she says:
"Unkindness may do much,/ And his unkindness may defeat my life,/ But never taint my love (4.2.159-161)."
Again, in the next scene, when her death is all but certain, she says to Emiia:
"My love doth so approve him,/ That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns--/ Prithee unpin me-- have grace and favor in them (4.3.19-21)."
It is surprising to me that many scholars see weakness and passivity in Desdemona's reaction here. To me the strongest literary or theological prototype for Desdemona's action is the Gospel portrait of Jesus Christ. As the Gospel writers say, he endured the undeserved obloquy of frenzied people and the betrayal of one he trusted, and even when he discovered this he went along on his way to death, even a painful and ignominious death. Christian theology has never had trouble seeing, in this act of greatest vulnerability, a demonstration of greatest strength. Why, then, should we rush to condemn or at least gently criticize Desdemona for her submissive love even to death? She has good, very good, company.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long