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Extinguishing Confusion: Desdemona

by Christa Forster

The Roman philosopher Ovid noted that “The lamp burns bright when wick and oil are clean.” He could have been speaking about Desdemona, the beautiful, innocent bride in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello. Desdemona shines brightly, but by the end of this play, Othello “puts out [this] light” because he believes that his wife’s goodness is too good to be true (V.ii.7). Truly confused — because of Iago’s evil insinuations — he believes his wife is unclean, “a cistern for foul toads” (IV.ii.60). Desdemona’s virtuousness causes much confusion for others, and, in the end, this same virtuousness ushers her to her horrific death.

Even before Othello gets infected, chaos contaminates the plot: the play, in fact, opens in confusion, caused by Desdemona’s secret marriage to Othello. Roderigo reveals how surprising her action is when he tells Brabantio, “Your daughter, […] hath made a gross revolt; / Tying her duty, beauty, wit and fortunes / In an extravagant and wheeling stranger” (I.i.134-137). The phrase “gross revolt” implies that by marrying Othello she has totally defied her virtue, the traditions, and the expectations of her family and her culture. Her father Brabantio, for example, cannot fathom that his daughter has made this “gross revolt” willingly. It is so unlike her that he tells the Duke, “She is abused, stol’n from me, and corrupted / By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks; /For nature so preposterously to err, / Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, / Sans witchcraft could not” (I.iii.60-64). To his mind, Desdemona must have been “enchanted” by magic, because marrying Othello by her own will would be absurd (preposterous) — an action that violates her maidenly nature, which Brabantio describes as “never bold; / Of spirit so still and quiet [….] perfection” (I.iii.94-97). Regardless of what these two men think, Desdemona has, indeed, fallen in love with Othello, and it is precisely because of Desdemona’s virtue — her innocence and goodness — that she is able to “fall in love with what she fear’d to look on” and see “Othello’s visage in his mind” (I.iii.98 and 249). Othello relates how, as he told Desdemona his life’s story, he “often did beguile her of her tears, / When [he] did speak of some distressful stroke / That [his] youth suffer’d” and that “she gave [him] for his pains a world of sighs; / She swore […] ‘twas wonderous pitful / […] she wished that heaven had made her such a man” (I.iii.155-157). The innocent child in Desdemona recognizes the innocent child Othello once was and the pains he consequently suffered. Othello — who is no longer a child nor an innocent — loves seeing himself through her eyes: “She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d, / And I loved her that she did pity them” (I.iii.166-168). Likewise, precisely because of her innocence and goodness, she cannot fathom evil (she has so little experience); therefore, she cannot imagine that evil may be done by anyone, but especially by someone like her: “Beshrew me if I would do such a wrong / for the whole world,” she says (IV.iii. 178-179). Othello, who does have experience, can imagine (with Iago’s diabolical promptings) that she could do such a wrong; in fact, he ends up imagining his wife not just as an “impudent strumpet” (IV.ii.80) but as a demon who must be banished, exorcised — “Ah, Desdemon! Away, away, away!” (IV.ii.40). Sadly, Iago has been successful at turning Desdemona’s “virtue into pitch” (II.iii.350); in other words, he transforms her light into darkness, leaving the reader with the question — had she been more experienced, that is, had she not been so innocent, would Desdemona have been able to save herself?

Innocence cannot last forever; certainly, Desdemona’s innocence doesn’t last forever: Othello snuffs out her short life. Doubtless, had she continued to live with Othello, she would have lost her innocence in time, because, the truth is, innocence must be lost so that people can continue to grow.

Image: “Othello” by Carl Ludwig Friedrich Becker, (German, 1820-1900)

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