Desdemona is a more plausible, well-rounded figure than
much criticism has given her credit for. Arguments that see Desdemona
as stereotypically weak and submissive ignore the conviction and authority
of her first speech (“My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided
duty” [I.iii.179–180]) and her terse fury
after Othello strikes her (“I have not deserved this” [IV.i.236]).
Similarly, critics who argue that Desdemona’s slightly bizarre bawdy
jesting with Iago in Act II, scene i, is either an interpolation
not written by Shakespeare or a mere vulgarity ignore the fact that
Desdemona is young, sexual, and recently married. She later displays
the same chiding, almost mischievous wit in Act III, scene iii,
lines 61–84, when she attempts to persuade
Othello to forgive Cassio.
Desdemona is at times a submissive character, most notably
in her willingness to take credit for her own murder. In response
to Emilia’s question, “O, who hath done this deed?” Desdemona’s final
words are, “Nobody, I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind
lord. O, farewell” (V.ii.133–134). The play,
then, depicts Desdemona contradictorily as a self-effacing, faithful
wife and as a bold, independent personality. This contradiction
may be intentional, meant to portray the way Desdemona herself feels
after defending her choice of marriage to her father in Act I, scene
iii, and then almost immediately being put in the position of defending
her fidelity to her husband. She begins the play as a supremely
independent person, but midway through she must struggle against
all odds to convince Othello that she is not too independent.
The manner in which Desdemona is murdered—smothered by a pillow
in a bed covered in her wedding sheets—is symbolic: she is literally
suffocated beneath the demands put on her fidelity. Since her first
lines, Desdemona has seemed capable of meeting or even rising above those
demands. In the end, Othello stifles the speech that made Desdemona
Tragically, Desdemona is apparently aware of her imminent death.
She, not Othello, asks Emilia to put her wedding sheets on the bed,
and she asks Emilia to bury her in these sheets should she die first.
The last time we see Desdemona before she awakens to find Othello
standing over her with murder in his eyes, she sings a song she
learned from her mother’s maid: “She was in love; and he proved mad
/ And did forsake her. She had a song of willow. / . . . / And she died
singing it. That song tonight / Will not go from my mind” (IV.iii.27–30).
Like the audience, Desdemona seems able only to watch as her husband
is driven insane with jealousy. Though she maintains to the end
that she is “guiltless,” Desdemona also forgives her husband (V.ii.133).
Her forgiveness of Othello may help the audience to forgive him