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A study of the character from Shakespeare's Othello

The following character study is reprinted from Shakespeare's Heroines. Anna Jameson. London: George Bell & Sons, 1897.

Among Shakespeare's other characters, the one that most closely resembles Desdemona is Miranda; the figures are differently draped, the proportions are the same. There is the same modesty, tenderness, and grace; the same artless devotion in the affections, the same predisposition to wonder, to pity, to admire; the same almost etherial refinement and delicacy. But all is pure poetic nature within Miranda and around her; Desdemona is more associated with the palpable realities of everyday existence, and we see the forms and habits of society tinting her language and deportment: no two beings can be more alike in character, nor more distinct as individuals.

The love of Desdemona for Othello appears at first such a violation of all probabilities that her father at once imputes it to magic, "to spells and mixtures powerful o'er the blood."

She--in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, every thing--
To fall in love with what she fear'd to look on!

And the devilish malignity of Iago, whose coarse mind cannot conceive an affection founded purely on sentiment, derives from her love itself a strong argument against her:

Ay, there's the point: As to be bold with you--
Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree;
Whereto, we see, in all things nature tends...

Notwithstanding this disparity of age, character, country, complexion, we, who are admitted into the secret, see her love rise naturally and necessarily out of the leading propensities of her nature.

At the period of the story a spirit of wild adventure had seized all Europe. The discovery of both Indies was yet recent; over the shores of the western hemisphere still fable and mystery hung, with all their dim enchantments, visionary terrors, and golden promises! Perilous expeditions and distant voyages were every day undertaken from hope of plunder, or mere love of enterprise; and from these the adventurers returned with tales of "Antres vast and desarts wild--of cannibals that did each other eat--of Anthropophagi, and men whose heads did grow beneath their shoulders." With just such stories did Raleigh and Clifford, and their followers, return from the New World: and thus by their splendid or fearful exaggerations, which the imperfect knowledge of those times could not refute, was the passion for the romantic and marvellous nourished at home, particularly among the women. A cavalier of those days had no nearer, no surer way to his mistress's heart than by entertaining her with these wondrous narratives. What was a general feature of his time, Shakespeare seized and adapted to his purpose with the most exquisite felicity for effect. Desdemona, leaving her household cares in haste to hang breathless on Othello's tales, was doubtless a picture from the life; and her inexperience and her quick imagination lend it an added propriety: then her compassionate disposition is interested by all the disastrous chances, hair-breadth 'scapes, and moving accidents by flood and field, of which he has to tell; and her exceeding gentleness and timidity, and her domestic turn of mind, render her more easily captivated by the military renown, the valour, and lofty bearing of the noble Moor:

And to his honours and his valiant parts
Does she her soul and fortune consecrate.

The confession and the excuse for her love is well placed in the mouth of Desdemona, while the history of the rise of that love, and of his course of wooing, is, with the most graceful propriety, as far as she is concerned, spoken by Othello, and in her absence. The last two lines summing up the whole--

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them--

comprise whole volumes of sentiment and metaphysics.

Desdemona displays at times a transient energy, arising from the power of affection, but gentleness gives the prevailing tone to the character--gentleness in its excess--gentleness verging on passiveness--gentleness, which not only cannot resent--but cannot resist.

OTHELLO: Then of so gentle a condition!

IAGO: Ay! too gentle.

OTHELLO: Nay, that's certain.

Here the exceeding softness of Desdemona's temper is turned against her by Iago, so that it suddenly strikes Othello in a new point of view, as the inability to resist temptation; but to us who perceive the character as a whole, this extreme gentleness of nature is yet delineated with such exceeding refinement, that the effect never approaches feebleness. It is true that once her extreme timidity leads her in a moment of confusion and terror to prevaricate about the fatal handkerchief. This handkerchief, in the original story of Cinthio, is merely one of those embroidered handkerchiefs which were as fashionable in Shakespeare's time as in our own; but the minute description of it as "lavorato alla morisco sottilissimamente,"--which being interpreted into modern English means, I believe, nothing more than that the pattern was what we now call arabesque--suggested to the poetical fancy of Shakespeare one of the most exquisite and characteristic passages in the whole play. Othello makes poor Desdemona believe that the handkerchief was a talisman.

OTHELLO: There's magick in the web of it:
A sybil, that had number'd in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetick fury sew'd the work:
The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk,
And it was dyed in mummy, which the skilful
Conserv'd of maiden's hearts.

DESDEMONA: Indeed! is 't true?

OTHELO: Most veritable, therefore look to 't well.

DESDEMONA: Then would heaven that I had never seen it!

OTHELLO: Ha! wherefore!

DESDEMONA: Why do you speak so startingly and rash?

OTHELLO: Is 't lost--is 't gone? Speak, is 't out of the way?

DESDEMONA: Heaven bless us!

OTHELLO: Say you?

DESDEMONA: It is not lost: But what an if it were?


DESDEMONA: I say, it is not lost.

OTHELLO: Fetch 't, let me see 't.

DESDEMONA: Why, so I can, sir, but I will not now...

Desdemona, whose soft credulity, whose turn for the marvellous, whose susceptible imagination had first directed her thoughts and affections to Othello, is precisely the woman to be frightened out of her senses by such a tale as this, and betrayed by her fears into a momentary tergiversation. It is most natural in such a being, and shows us that even in the sweetest natures there can be no completeness and consistency without moral energy.

With the most perfect artlessness, she has something of the instinctive, unconscious address of her sex; as when she appeals to her father:

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.

And when she is pleading for Cassio:

What! Michael Cassio!
That came a wooing with you; and so many a time,
When I have spoke of you disparagingly,
Hath ta'en your part?

In persons who unite great sensibility and lively fancy, I have often observed this particular species of address, which is always unconscious of itself, and consists in the power of placing ourselves in the position of another, and imagining, rather than perceiving, what is in their hearts. We women have this address (if so it can be called) naturally, but I have seldom met with it in men. It is not inconsistent with extreme simplicity of character, and quite distinct from that kind of art which is the result of natural acuteness and habits of observation--quick to perceive the foibles of others, and as quick to turn them to its own purposes; which is always conscious of itself, and, if united with strong intellect, seldom perceptible to others. In the mention of her mother, and the appeal to Othello's self-love, Desdemona has no design formed on conclusions previously drawn; but her intuitive quickness of feeling, added to her imagination, lead her more safely to the same results, and the distinction is as truly as it is delicately drawn.

When Othello first outrages her in a manner which appears inexplicable, she seeks and finds excuses for him. She is so innocent, that not only she cannot believe herself suspected, but she cannot conceive the existence of guilt in others.

Something, sure, of state--
Either from Venice; or some unhatch'd practice
Made demonstrable here in Cyprus to him--
Hath puddled his clear spirit.
'Tis even so--
Nay, we must think, men are not gods,
Nor of them look for such observances
As fit the bridal.

And when the direct accusation of crime is flung on her in the vilest terms, it does not anger but stun her, as if it transfixed her whole being; she attempts no reply, no defence; and reproach or resistance never enters her thought.

Good friend, go to him;--for, by this light of heaven,
I know not how I lost him. Here I kneel:--
If e'er my will did trespass 'gainst his love,
Either in discourse of thought, or actual deed;
Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense,
Delighted them in any other form;
Or that I do not yet, and ever did,
And ever will--though he do shake me off
To beggarly divorcement--love him dearly,
Comfort forswear me! Unkindness may do much,
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love.

And there is one stroke of consummate delicacy, surprising, when we remember the latitude of expression prevailing in Shakespeare's time, and which he allowed to his other women generally: she says, on recovering from her stupefaction:

DESDEMONA: Am I that name, Iago?

IAGO: What name, fair lady?

DESDEMONA: Such as, she says, my lord did say I was?

So completely did Shakespeare enter into the angelic refinement of the character.

Endued with that temper which is the origin of superstition in love as in religion--which, in fact, makes love itself a religion--she not only does not utter an upbraiding, but nothing that Othello does or says, no outrage, no injustice, can tear away the charm with which her imagination had invested him, or impair her faith in his honour. "I would you had never seen him!" exclaims Emilia.

DESDEMONA: So would not I!--my love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his checks, and frowns,
Have grace and favour in them.

There is another peculiarity, which, in reading the play of Othello, we rather feel than perceive: through the whole of the dialogue appropriated to Desdemona, there is not one general observation. Words are with her the vehicle of sentiment, and never of reflection; so that I cannot find throughout a sentence of general application. The same remark applies to Miranda: and to no other female character of any importance or interest; not even to Ophelia.

The rest of what I wished to say of Desdemona has been anticipated by an anonymous critic, and so beautifully, so justly, so eloquently expressed, that I with pleasure erase my own page to make room for his.

"Othello," observes this writer, "is no love story; all that is below tragedy in the passion of love is taken away at once, by the awful character of Othello; for such he seems to us to be designed to be. He appears never as a lover, but at once as a husband; and the relation of his love made dignified, as it is a husband's justification of his marriage, is also dignified, as it is a soldier's relation of his stern and perilous life. His love itself, as long as it is happy, is perfectly calm and serene--the protecting tenderness of a husband. It is not till it is disordered that it appears as a passion: then is shown a power in contention with itself--a mighty being struck with death, and bringing up from all the depths of life, vitally wounded, and self over-mastering. If Desdemona had been really guilty, the greatness would have been destroyed, because his love would have been unworthy, false. But she is good, and his love is most perfect, just, and good. That a man should place his perfect love on a wretched thing is miserably debasing, and shocking to thought; but that loving perfectly and well, he should by hellish human circumvention be brought to distrust and dread, and abjure his own perfect love, is most mournful indeed--it is the infirmity of our good nature wrestling in vain with the strong powers of evil. Moreover, he would, had Desdemona been false, have been the mere victim of fate; whereas he is now in a manner his own victim. His happy love was heroic tenderness; his injured love is terrible passion; and disordered power, engendered within itself to its own destruction, is the height of all tragedy."

"The character of Othello is perhaps the most greatly drawn, the most heroic, of any of Shakespeare's actors; but it is, perhaps, that one also of which his reader last acquires the intelligence. The intellectual and warlike energy of his mind, his tenderness of affection, his loftiness of spirit, his frank, generous magnanimity, impetuosity like a thunderbolt, and that dark, fierce flood of boiling passion, polluting even his imagination, compose a character entirely original, most difficult to delineate, but perfectly delineated."

Emilia in this play is a perfect portrait from common life, a masterpiece in the Flemish style: and though not necessary as a contrast, it cannot be but that the thorough vulgarity, the loose principles, of this plebeian woman, united to a high degre of spirit, energetic feeling, strong sense, and low cunning, serve to place in brighter relief the exquisite refinement, the moral grace, the unblemished truth, and the soft submission of Desdemona.

On the other perfections of this tragedy, considered as a production of genius--on the wonderful characters of Othello and Iago, on the skill with which the plot is conducted, and its simplicity which a word unravels, and on the overpowering horror of the catastrophe--eloquence and analytical criticism have been exhausted. I will only add, that the source of the pathos throughout--of that pathos which at once softens and deepens the tragic effect--lies in the character of Desdemona. No woman differently constituted could have excited the same intense and painful compassion without losing something of that exalted charm which invests her from beginning to end, which we are apt to impute to the interest of the situation and to the poetical colouring, but which lies, in fact, in the very essence of the character. Desdemona, is not weak; for the negative alone is weak; and the mere presence of goodness and affection implies in itself a species of power; power without consciousness, power without effort, power with repose--that soul of grace!

I know a Desdemona in real life, one in whom the absence of intellectual power is never felt as a deficiency, nor the absence of energy of will as impairing the dignity, nor the most imperturbable serenity as a want of feeling: one in whom thoughts appear mere instincts, the sentiment of rectitude supplies the principle, and virtue itself seems rather a necessary state of being than an imposed law. No shade of sin or vanity has yet stolen over that bright innocence. No discord within has marred the loveliness without; no strife of the factitious world without has disturbed the harmony within. The comprehension of evil appears forever shut out, as if goodness had converted all things to itself; and all to the pure in heart must necessarily be pure. The impression produced is exactly that of the character of Desdemona; genius is a rare thing, but abstract goodness is rarer. In Desdemona we cannot but feel that the slightest manifestation of intellectual power or active will would have injured the dramatic effect. She is a victim consecreated from the first--"an offering without blemish," alone worthy of the grand final sacrifice; all harmony, all grace, all purity, all tenderness, all truth! But, alas! to see her fluttering like a cherub in the talons of a fiend!--to see her--O poor Desdemona!

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