Is Desdemona a figure of weakness or strength? Essay
Shakespeare has portrayed Desdemona to have both weaknesses and strengths that make her personality appear normal. Desdemona does seem to be an all rounded person however it is her weaknesses, which brings about her downfall. Desdemona shows blatant signs throughout the whole play that she fails to realise she is being manipulated by the main vice character Iago. Another weakness which can come to view is Desdemona’s tendency to poke her nose into Othello’s public life, which is unnatural for a woman to do in the Elizabethan era.
Desdemona also shows weakness in allowing men to mistreat her; in the beginning of Othello, her father disowns her, Iago uses Desdemona for his own revenge throughout the whole play, and then Othello who ignores and silences her for innocently protesting to reinstate Cassio. Despite all of these weaknesses, her strengths do shine through her actions and words. Desdemona does show courage to repel against her father when he objects to her love for Othello, and there is a repetition of this repelling against Othello later in the play.
Desdemona does also show the renaissance side of her personality, by trying to break free from the patriarchal society, and critics would argue why should she not speak her mind, however some other critics such as feminist Jardine would disagree. Through Iago we learn about his plans to use Desdemona so that his plot to seek revenge against Othello comes in tact. Iago plants ideas into Othello’s mind, however it is Desdemona’s innocence which feeds the seeds that leads to the growth of Othello’s suspicion and jealousy.
The first matter she speaks about to Othello is “lieutenant, Cassio,” whom she promised as a kind gesture to try and persuade Othello to reinstate him. She calls him “lieutenant” when she knows he isn’t. My interpretation of this is Desdemona calls Cassio “lieutenant” because she feels that Othello loves her, thus he will do anything for her. Therefore she could perhaps be expecting an immediate, positive response. However her kind gesture is playing reversibly against her. The audience can see through her lack of suspicion towards Iago that she is a nai??ve character.
In act three scene three we see an example of this very kind of behaviour, where she is being irritable to Othello about reinstating Cassio. She innocently claims Cassio “truly loves” Othello, and that he is “honest” and carries on her persistent nagging not knowing when to stop. Shakespeare has deliberately made Desdemona say these good things about Cassio so that it can be seen she is playing into Iago’s hands, and making Othello insecure at the same time. Desdemona asks “when shall he come? “He” is Cassio, and through this question, Othello can see she is eager to invite him for dinner to settle the dispute, which makes him more suspicious. However he is clearly driving himself away from answering the question but Desdemona carries on haunting him not realising her husband is getting annoyed. As a newly-wed wife, she cannot interpret when Othello is agitated because of the lack of understanding she has of men, therefore she does not know when to stop. Unlike Iago’s wife Emilia who has more marital experience and who does know when to walk away.
Through Desdemona’s naivety, she fails to see that Iago’s vengeful tactics are causing her marital harmony to be broken down. Iago starts filtering Othello’s mind, telling him to “think” where one thought can lead into another, which is the intention of Iago’s plot for revenge. This causes Desdemona’s relationship to have communication problems. She says in act four scene two that she understands the “fury” in Othello’s words “but not the words. ” This is a classic example of Desdemona’s manipulation and confusion that broke the peace between her and her husband.
Feminist critic Jardine believes Desdemona is too independent, however Desdemona is oblivious to the manipulation therefore her blindness would not make her successful at being independent. Manipulation is a major flaw within Desdemona, and it is this flaw that has played into the trouble that has been stirred by Iago. As Othello’s wife, conventionally Desdemona is apart of Othello’s private life, however she has shown the audience a tendency to poke her nose into the public life of Othello. The main example of this is when she attempts to persuade Othello to take back Cassio as his lieutenant.
She is convinced that she can “talk him out of patience” but she does not understand that, in Othello’s public life he may be a different person to what he is in his private life. Desdemona fails to see that she is mixing both Othello’s public and private life, therefore this interference is causing problems for her marriage. This is noticed when Othello says “O curse of marriage” which is a dramatic statement to say, and it is Desdemona’s interference and her tragic timing which inflicts this feeling upon Othello.
Despite Othello’s character is supposed to develop to regret marrying Desdemona, the “curse of marriage” could be a statement that reflects Shakespeare’s thoughts. The fact that it appears Desdemona is trying to break free from the patriarchal society could be a reflection of Shakespeare’s renaissance thinking. It could be a hidden message to either inspire women of that time or warn men that women will start to interfere with the men’s business and will be sooner or later apart of public affairs.
Jardine feels that there is no place for a private woman in a public male society. A woman who wishes to participate in male affairs in a patriarchal society gets punished, and this is proved in Othello, as Desdemona’s marriage fails and she dies. There is truth in what Jardine says, men in a patriarchal society are powerful and can break women, which justifies why Desdemona should not have mixed Othello’s public life and private together. This is an example of a weakness; she does not think her action through.
Another weakness Desdemona faces is the mistreatment of men. This is one aspect of her which has been repeated throughout the play, and which could to an extent mirror the insufficiency of her intelligence. In act one, Desdemona’s father, Brabantio could not accept the truth that his “jewel” eloped with the Moor. Once he was proven wrong, he rejected his “jewel. ” Shakespeare compares Desdemona to a jewel because jewels are considered precious, and precious is what Desdemona was to Brabantio, so to reject her is a harsh move.
However Desdemona marrying against her father’s will is contradicting the innocent comments he made about his daughter, also Desdemona’s actions are seen to be disobedient and it is something that is not common in a patriarchal society. Desdemona does defend herself and tries to justify her actions, but the audience is given the insight that she acted on impulse, and perhaps she did not think her actions through thoroughly resulting in her rejection. Desdemona fails to see Iago is using her, and it is through him her troubles thicken.
She is playing into Iago’s plot to make Othello’s “jealousy so strong/That judgement cannot cure. Shakespeare has deliberately used this comment to reflect Iago’s capability, so it can be said that Desdemona is too weak to sub-consciously resist against Iago’s power. Desdemona’s marital bliss is slipping rapidly, and her blind nature is letting it happen. Othello demonstrates his abuse when he silences in act three scene three. He tells her “to leave me but a little to myself. ” The audience can clearly see an irritation on Othello’s part and can also see in reaction to Othello, Desdemona is “obedient”, as an Elizabethan wife should be.
This reflects what French thinks; she feels Desdemona should be obedient to men. Desdemona does show conformity to Othello, she says in act three scene three “I am obedient” but she also shows obedience to Cassio, whom she tells that she will use her “abilities in thy behalf” to get Cassio reinstated. There is a slight dramatic irony in that, because Othello thinks Cassio is Desdemona’s secret lover, and traditionally it is your husband/lover you are obedient to. The fact Desdemona has been disrespected her father, Iago and her husband does reflect the common attitudes in the Elizabethan period.
From a contemporary point of view, her mistreatment could seen as a weakness in today’s society, Desdemona would get a lot of today’s people trampling over her. Desdemona’s love for Othello results her repelling against her father’s wishes in act one which reflects great courage and strength for an Elizabethan daughter. This repulsion is repeated in act three scene three when she disagrees over Cassio’s dismissal as lieutenant, and insists on doing what she wants by nagging Othello to reinstate Cassio who “languishes” in Othello’s “displeasure.
Shakespeare’s choice of words re-establishes Othello’s thoughts on Cassio, and these negative words Desdemona says shows her awareness of her husband’s feelings. Despite this awareness of hers, she still decides to bother Othello about Cassio. Her tendency to repel reflects her independent nature, and there are two approaches that justify why she may repel. Looking at Desdemona’s situation from a Marxist perspective, it could be radically said she is being oppressed by her father, considering Marxists believe the family serves as an institution to oppress and undermine women.
Brabantio asks Desdemona “where most you owe obedience? ” and once having heard her explanation; he disowns her for having no obedience for her father within one speech, which justifies the Marxist perspective. However Shakespeare may have created Desdemona as a refection of his renaissance thinking to rebel against her fathers oppression. The other approach is more subtle; the rebellion could just be apart of her personality considering there are repetitions of the rebellion. Feminist critic French does not accept Desdemona’s behaviour, as French believes Desdemona should accept cultural dictum and be obedient to men.
Desdemona’s rebellion is a strength in herself however from an outsider’s view, it is not socially acceptable for a woman of her status in Elizabethan society to go against her father or her husband, she would have to accept their decision because patriotism is the status quo in Elizabethan society. Desdemona’s actions within Othello does imply that perhaps as a figure renaissance character, she is trying to break free from the Elizabethan, patriarchal society which can be seen as a strength from a modern point of view.
The rebellion does imply that Desdemona is trying to break free from the patriarchal society. Another aspect, which makes Desdemona, appears, as a strong character is her ability to not be a traditional Elizabethan wife. As Desdemona does not follow the hidden requirements of an Elizabethan wife, it can be said she is trying to escape from the patriarchal society. Desdemona speaks her mind and makes her own decisions like in act three scene three when she is speaking to Cassio.
She decides that she will “have my lord and you again. “you” is Cassio and she decides through her own will that she wants to help Cassio. However despite a twenty-first century audience would see this as a kind gesture, an Elizabethan audience would see this as a wife going against a husband’s decision, and it is in this respect that her kindness can be mistaken for Desdemona’s weakness. Another characteristic we can spot in Desdemona is her ability to speak her mind as she shows in act two scene one. The audience witness an ugly side to Iago when he degrades women and the audience pick up a negative, cynical attitude towards women.
He refers women to be “players” and in response Desdemona speaks; “O fie upon thee, slanderer! ” she says what she thinks and treats his words as if it is a joke. This does reflect independence and does also reflect that as a woman, not being afraid to speak her mind is her subtle way of resisting against the patriarchal society. Desdemona does not accept female degrading comments. You could decide to look at Desdemona’s situation from a Structuralist perspective.
Society is following patriarchal norms and values, however Desdemona could be seen as a renaissance character, thus it is society, which conforms her to resists against the Elizabethan society by speaking her mind and becoming an independent wife. The independence again mirrors Jardine’s thoughts on Desdemona. As a feminist she believes Desdemona is too independent for an Elizabethan wife, how from a modern day opinion, a woman’s independence is seen to be a great strength and quality which is highly valued. By weighing up Desdemona’s weaknesses and strengths, it appears she is a figure of weakness.
However the majority of her weaknesses appears because of surrounding characters, which funnily enough happen to be the men in her life. She allows men to mistreat her without her even consciously realising it, and it is Iago who cunningly manipulates her. But on the other side of the coin it can be said that she has been put in the situations, and it is for the audience to assess and witness her reactions. Desdemona’s strengths are not right for the patriarchal society; her strengths are better off in a modern day society, which is why some would argue Desdemona is a figure of renaissance thinking.