Are Desdemona and Emilia passive acceptors of fate or can they be seen as heroic in their tragedy? Essay
Desdemona and Emilia can be seen as both ‘passive acceptors of fate’ and ‘heroic’ throughout the play at different times they are both dominating and submissive - Are Desdemona and Emilia passive acceptors of fate or can they be seen as heroic in their tragedy? Essay introduction. They change due to the differing manipulations and cunning plans of “honest” Iago, but also because of the other male’s actions in play. A ‘passive acceptor of fate’ is someone who does not get involved or try to change what is happening to them or other people, whereas ‘heroic’ is someone who is brave and tries to help themselves or others around them from peril.
Desdemona is ‘heroic’ in the first act because she asserts her rights as a married woman to her father and that Othello should not be blamed because she was “half the wooer”. Critics seem to forget this first speech which shows Desdemona commanding an authority which shows she can be strong even as a woman. Stereotypically at the time it was a very bad act to elope, but to a modern audience she would be seen as a hero, especially by feminists, because she has broken free from the oppressive Brabantio, an overbearing male figure.
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She also states very respectfully that though she feels she has a “divided duty” she must “follow her mother” and be with Othello. Desdemona does accept however that she will obey Othello’s authority and explicitly states this by saying, “My heart’s subdued //Even to the most utmost pleasure of my lord. ” The use of the word “lord” shows not only her respect towards Othello, but also her now being a ‘passive’ character. The word “subdued” also implies a sense of power that Othello has over Desdemona.
Desdemona is also keen to please Othello to the “utmost”. Emilia is ‘heroic’ when she stands up to her husband, Iago, who says that she, “rises to play and goes to bed to work”, calling her a prostitute, which is very offensive in those times and also now. Emilia however, defends herself and her sex by replying “you shall not write my praise. ” The use of the short, sharp reply tells the audience that she does not rise to the derogatory comments made by Iago and also that Shakespeare wanted Emilia to be a strong character at times.
However Emilia is also ‘passive’ because she gives Iago the handkerchief, which shows she submits to her husband and obeys him, she does not stand up for herself when he calls her a “good wench. ” She can stand up for other women but does not seem to stand up for herself. This is shown more strongly in the second half of the play when Desdemona becomes less assertive and Emilia becomes her energetic defender. Desdemona shows glimpses of her ‘heroic’ character but they are few and far between.
When Othello publicly strikes her she says that she has “not deserved this” and it seems as if she is going to stand up for herself because she is furious that he has hit her and she does not understand why either, but she quickly reverts to being ‘passive’ and accepts Othello’s authority over her by saying that she “shall not stay to offend [him]. ” Desdemona is most submissive however, in her own death, where when asked by Emilia “O, who hath done this deed? she replies, “Nobody, I myself. Farewell. // Commend me to my kind lord. O farewell. ” She defends her husband throughout and even forgives him for what he has done, because Desdemona has forgiven him, the audience are more likely to as well. She can also be seen as a self-sacrificing Christ like figure in the way she protects Othello. The fact that she is killed by suffocation is symbolic because she is suffocated by Othello’s insane jealousy over if she has cheated on him or not.
Desdemona is used as a symbol of purity and so in that light she would also be seen as ‘passive’ because it would contrast with Emilia who would be seen as more worldly and ‘heroic’. Desdemona comes from the Greek word ‘disdemona’, which in English means ‘unfortunate’, and she is not only unfortunate but passive because she does not tell Emilia what was really going on, which could be down to either naivety or loyalty and undying love for Othello.
In conclusion, I believe that Desdemona is a ‘passive acceptor of fate’ because she after the first act she fails to stand up for herself further, that could be because she does not feel comfortable in the change of setting out of her native Venice. I feel however that Emilia is ‘heroic’ because she stands up to Iago, Othello and protects Desdemona and her sex on more than a few occasions throughout the play.