How much is Desdemona to blame for the tragedy of Othello?


How much is Desdemona to blame for the tragedy of Othello?

  • Desdemona is a defiant character who displays duality.
  • Her duality of being assertive and submissive has enabled her to reconcile conflicts e.g. her marriage to Othello.
  • This duality brings the theme of appearance and reality into play – Iago exploits this and depicts her as being untrustworthy and unfaithful, knowing that this would anger Othello because his greatest weakness is jealousy.
  • Act III, scene III is crucial in portraying her insistent nature – it marks the moment where Iago’s machinations begin fully.

It can be argued that the duality of Desdemona lends to the tragedy of Othello. Her compliant and assertive nature is exploited by Iago in order to coerce Othello into believing that his wife is unfaithful; one is able to understand why Iago is able to achieve this in Act III, Scene III. In an exchange between Othello and Desdemona, we see the use of line sharing: ‘Shall’t be tonight at supper?/No, not tonight.’ Line sharing is often used to build tension or to quicken the pace of dialogue. When performed one will witness how line sharing perfectly illustrates Desdemona’s insistent nature – she pushes her husband into reconciling with Cassio and does not cease here. Her dialogue is littered with caesura as Desdemona continues:‘Why then, tomorrow night, or Tuesday morn;/On Tuesday, noon or night; on Wednesday morn!’ Here in Desdemona’s dialogue there are many pauses and this illuminates her as being desperate for Cassio’s cause. Even after her husband has stated that he is already occupied, Desdemona is reluctant to give in and be obedient towards her husband – in this scene there is a lack of obedience that Desdemona talked so greatly of amongst Venetian authority in Act I. Her defence of Cassio is done out of her good nature and completely innocently; however, it is may be difficult for a Shakespearean/Jacobean audience to see this as Desdemona incriminates herself and puts her marriage at jeopardy. This is seen through Shakespeare’s use of verbs: ‘When shall he come?/Tell me, Othello.’ The verb ‘tell’ highlights Desdemona’s assertive attitude and such a nature would shock as Jacobean audience because she does not conform to society’s expectations: women are to be subservient, never challenging the authority of a male. She refuses to accept Othello’s decision because unlike her husband she is taken aback by her husband’s changing allies. Had Desdemona fallen into these boundaries, then perhaps Iago would have never been able to succeed at planting seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind, driving him to madness, and ultimately to destruction.



14 thoughts on “How much is Desdemona to blame for the tragedy of Othello?

  1. valenteensaph says:

    I think definitely a lot of Elizabethan men would have seen Desdemona as partly to blame- she as the “captain’s captain” had a lot of power over him, which relates to the fear of cuckoldry from an uncontrollable wife. Of course feminist critics would completely argue against Desdemona being to blame. However it’s interesting to turn it over even further and ask whether it is Othello’s too-deep love for her which is at fault. This certainly would have been seen as a weakness on his side, especially considering how drenched the play is with sexual imagery.

    Just some food for thought 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • year12englishblog says:

      I really like your idea about Othello’s love for her; however you could argue that Othello’s rash actions, naivety and his hamartia of jealousy demonstrate that he did not truly love his wife. If he loved her deeply, surely he would not have been so rash to decide to murder her. Of course, with Iago’s machinations perhaps Desdemona’s fate is inevitable; Iago manipulates the brute within Othello and the general chooses to ignore his once unconditional love for his wife.
      If you truly loved someone, why would you hurt them?
      Thank you for your comment, it definitely made me rethink some of the ideas I proposed 🙂


      • valenteensaph says:

        Of course you could argue either way. What I’ve noted which is interesting is how in most schools we are taught the A.C. Bradley (I think) version of hamartia which was developed in Victorian criticism: that hamartia is a character flaw, something psychological; the classical Aristotelian version is rather an action, a mistake which the character makes. I would argue that perhaps Othello’s hamartia is dedicating himself to the male code of honour (3.3) in order to protect his reputation. When looking at his language, you can either take it that he wants to almost re-purify her and return her to an idealisation through death (therein lies how you can love someone and hurt them- namely for their own good), or that alive she will ruin more men (5.2.6). Personally I think the reason why Othello’s love for her was unconditional was because he idealised her and it (1.3), making it like the courtly love between Romeo and Rosalyn. One thing to trace through the play is how Othello imitates Iago, a complete psychopath- it is possible that some of his psychopathic tendencies are internalised by Othello, just like the racism and sexism, thus explaining his rash actions.

        On a final point, look up the meaning of Desdemona’s name 🙂 happy essay-writing


    • Fiona says:

      Although some people may claim that Desdemona was the cause of Othello’s demise, I personally believe that she, although presented as powerful, would not have had conscience control over Othello. Psychologically, Iago uses Desdemona as a tool in order to break Othello down and crush everything he believes however i do not believe that Desdemona ever intentionally wants her marriage to break down


  2. ben says:

    Hi love the blog, will you be guys doing any of the romantic poetry and more on Othello? This blog saved me at AS, would love it if you did more at a level!


  3. A2Revision says:

    Hi, do you guys have a question bank for the new spec at A2 for Poems of the Decade, Prose, Othello? I want to write some essays but very limited online!


    • year12englishblog says:

      I will start today 🙂 Please be ware that we will only be posting revision notes for those studying ROMANTIC poetry as that is what we are studying.


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