Hi there! Someone asked for an idea of how to structure a Shakespeare essay for the Edexcel exam. Here’s one I wrote this morning – it hasn’t been marked by anyone and I certainly can’t promise it’s perfect! I’ll highlight it according to assessment objectives.
Explore Shakespeare’s presentation of Desdemona in Othello. You must relate your discussion to relevant contextual factors and ideas from your critical reading.
A01 A02 A03 A05
In his 1604 tragedy “Othello”, Shakespeare explores the roles of men and women, relationships, and gender dichotomy in his contemporary society. Through the character of Desdemona, the audience is introduced to both stereotypes of female subservience and conflicting ideas of power and autonomy, revealing the ultimate complexity of Jacobean womanhood and its relationship to class. Through Desdemona’s decidedly multifaceted character, Shakespeare twists the prescribed notion of woman, instead suggesting that her power lies most in her social background and reputation.
While we might anticipate Desdemona to be entirely submissive, Shakespeare initially constructs her character to be held in high esteem by her male peers. In the second act of the play, Shakespeare presents an unusual power division in the relationship between Desdemona and Othello through his use of epithet and shared lines. Describing her partner as “my dear Othello”, Desdemona not only employs a possessive pronoun to establish her bond with Othello, but fluidly completes the missing syllables in his previous line: “O my fair warrior!”. This smooth interchange between the two characters stresses their untouched bond and synchronous relationship, elevating Desdemona to the same position as her husband. By describing her as a “warrior”, Shakespeare applies a typically masculine attribute to her character, allowing her to mirror the strength of her partner.
Though this may imply a balanced relationship between the two, it also reveals the powerful weight of Desdemona’s social status as an upper class woman when compared to that of a black man. While Jacobean society typically perceived a woman as lesser than her partner, this dynamic is complicated by Othello and Desdemona’s racial difference, which instead would have dictated Desdemona to be more worthy for her whiteness. While Kenneth Burke describes Othello’s relationship to Desdemona as “ownership in the profoundest sense”, we might dispute that this is instead applicable to Desdemona, who possesses her husband as a exotic treasure, with a love founded on a fascination for his “otherness.” When Othello notes that she loved “[him] for the dangers [he] had passed”, Shakespeare constructs his character to appear like a trophy in the eyes of Desdemona, allowing her to view him as “hers” as opposed to his possession. While Brabantio and the other Venetians may perceive Desdemona as “subdued and poisoned” by Othello, we might argue that she actually exercises a degree of control over Othello in the first two acts of the play, being free to “devour his discourse” and in turn to fetishise his strength and accomplishments.
As the play progresses, we note how the presentation of Desdemona’s character shifts in accordance with her changing reputation. While in the first two acts of the play she is respected on account of her chastity and noble background, her image is distorted by her suspected infidelity. In act four, Othello labels Desdemona as “that cunning whore of Venice”, equating her position to her sexuality, and that in turn to her Venetian background. As described by Loomba in her essay “Othello, Race and Society”, the “openness of Venice could be seen as dangerous”, hence it appears possible to Othello that his wife is predisposed to sexual promiscuity. This image of an liberal Venice was often employed by English writers as a symbol of sexual deviance among women, corrupting the “virtuous” nature of Desdemona to make her a “strumpet”, “whore” and “devil.” These adjectives strip Desdemona of her high status, instead likening her to a prostitute, which would have been extremely ill-viewed. Shakespeare here reveals the expected feminine weakness of Desdemona, who internalises her husband’s accusations in her own language. Lamenting that she does “abhor” the word “whore”, Shakespeare uses two homonyms to directly equate whoredom with abhorrence, Desdemona expressing a disgust for herself despite never being unfaithful. The defiling of Desdemona’s sexual purity exemplifies the fragility of Jacobean womanhood and its explicit link to reputation and social position.
In the final act, when Desdemona is smothered, critic David Blamires describes her death as a “tragicomic parody of an erotic death”, the act of extinguishing Desdemona’s “promethean heat” acting as a dark metaphor for her first orgasm. Desdemona, initially presented as the embodiment of a “tender, fair and happy maid”, ultimately epitomises a Jacobean woman’s struggle for agency in a society which values her virginity above all else. While we may anticipate that she be rewarded for her honest nature and unwavering fidelity, it is the irony of her death that encapsulates the tragedy of “Othello”, “killed for being a whore, she dies a virgin.” (Blamires.)
The character of Desdemona emphasises the value placed on a woman’s chastity, and how liable her position in society was to collapse. While she may be privileged for her racial background, she does not exercise any freedoms beyond this, and is ultimately punished for marrying outside of her race and class. Through her doomed relationship with Othello, Shakespeare deconstructs a “fantasy of social tolerance” (Loomba), revealing a society corrupted by sexism, racism, and immorality.