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Desdemona: The Unwritten Tragedy of a Character Who Gets Under My Skin

by Andrew Marquardt

In the introduction to his widely acclaimed though often forgotten book, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, William Hazlitt writes a wonderful appreciation of Shakespeare’s characters. “His characters are so much nature herself…every single character in Shakespeare, is as much an individual, as those in life itself.” So, what sort of individual is Desdemona? Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley offers an answer: “She tends to become to us predominantly pathetic.” He continues, “the sweetest and most pathetic of Shakespearean women.” The English journalist Samuel Pepys would seemingly agree when his only remark on a 1660 showing of Othello was, “a pretty lady that sat by me called out to see Desdemona smothered.”

Othello suffocates Desdemona in a Royal Shakespeare production of Othello

Is that really all she is? A sweet and pathetic character that the audience cannot help but wait to see die? Possibly, she is no more than, as the poet Horace puts it, “dulce et utile,” to be pretty and beautiful and to be useful. Maybe. She is the protagonist’s wife, and the play certainly is Othello and not Desdemona for a reason. So why care about Desdemona? This question began as just another college assignment that a professor assigns before sitting back on their old leather armchair, legs up on the table, laughing at the pain their students are going through. But as I carried out my research, I realized Desdemona was right next to the professor, laughing even harder at me.

She Gets on My Nerves

For me, finding out the individual of Desdemona was like watching a wave on a lake when

each crest peeks above the surface, momentarily offering a glimpse of hope that the ripple will materialize into something more, only for it to sink out of sight. I quickly learned in Special Collections that Desdemona is a ripple, not a tsunami. Before the project, I had never heard of Othello. Shakespeare himself was foreign to me. I was out of place. A psychology major stranded on a boat in the vast, swirling ocean of Shakespeare with my only knowledge of how to steer coming from reading Romeo and Juliet in high school and my mom’s Shakespeare books that I had picked up and put down before even reading the title. I had been deceived.

“But Desdemona’s suffering is like that of the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the being he adores.” (excerpt from Shakespearean Tragedy)

While others in the class shared what they were finding with each other for their research, I paged through Italian and French books hoping to catch even a glimpse of her name. After going through the entirety of Giovanni Cinthio’s Gil Hecatommithi knowing that her name had to be somewhere, I realized I had book 2 instead of 1. At least I had discovered something in my research: how to correctly use the library’s interface to request books. It felt like Iago had taken hold of me and this was his revenge for me ignorantly taking an English class because the course name: “Shakespeare, Sort Of,” made me laugh when choosing classes. I was still no closer to finding out who Desdemona is. Thankfully, I had something that she did not: help.

A Surprising Discovery

With the aid of the Special Collection librarians, I was beginning to find more recent adaptations of Desdemona that were unlike anything I had seen prior. Consequently, the biggest discovery of my time in Special Collections was found: the old Desdemona vs. the new. The old Desdemona’s identity came from Shakespeare. She is the author’s muse called upon for aid to help tell and amplify the tragedy of Othello’s story. Not her own. It is no wonder then that adaptations of Desdemona were far and few between following

the original 1603 writing. The later 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s did not offer much if anything for adaptions. Rather, the focus of critics and playwrights was on character analysis: what is Desdemona’s purpose in the play, how well does she play this part, and so forth. The famed author W.H. Auden puts it bluntly when in his 1962 essay he says, “I cannot bring myself to like her. Her determination to marry Othello…seems the romantic crush of a silly schoolgirl rather than a mature affection." He does not stop there, however, and continues with, “In time she might well have been unfaithful. She’s a romantic girl going slumming. And she wants to get away from home.”

This could have been the end for Desdemona: stuck in antiquity as a reminder for people not to fall in love prematurely. However, with time, a new identity of Desdemona was beginning to form. The author Jane Smiley in her 2012 short story “Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, Gives Desdemona Advice” provides Desdemona with a new way to be heard as she writes:

“You, my dear, are also vulnerable in the society of fighting men."

In this adaptation, Desdemona and Marguerite exchange letters in a pen-pal system where Desdemona writes to ask the Queen on what she should do as the events of Othello progress in the unseen background. Desdemona here is not the innocent, naive child simply bearing the circumstances that are presented to her. Desdemona writes to the Queen, “In the past I have found this Iago a slippery and cold sort of fellow and in fact I was unsure about taking Emilia for my maid. But now I feel more warmly towards them.” In contrast to previous portrayals she now has her own story and her own thoughts. Her words are no longer strangled out of her breath by authors and the audience.

Who is Desdemona?

Taking a look at Shakespeare’s characters necessitates an examination of the numerous changes and evolutions that have taken place over time, changes that Shakespeare himself could not have imagined or foreseen. The important question has shifted from how does Shakespeare want the audience to view his characters to how do we, as the audience, make sense of who the characters are. Toni Morrison used the latter framework in looking at Desdemona as the protagonist in her 2011 play Desdemona.

Similar to Jane Smiley’s adaptation, Desdemona is not sitting idly by in innocence as the story progresses around her. She is the play. In the afterlife, Desdemona confronts people from her past: her nurse Barbary, the silent Emilia, and even Othello, are all confronted by Desdemona to give her time to be able to say what could not have been said when they were alive. In response to Emilia, Desdemona says, “You are right to correct me. Instead of judging, I should have been understanding.” Desdemona has gained the power of choice. Through the library archives, I was able to uncover who she is as a person; not possessed by something or someone else but able to make her own decisions. She has a voice. Now, the story has changed from Othello to Desdemona.

“In our privileged position in timelessness, our answer is a roar.” (Excerpt from Desdemona by Toni Morrison)


This essay is part of the Shakespeare, Sort Of series, a project exploring archival research and Shakespearean adaptations. Find every SSO essay here.

Further Reading

A.C. Bradley (1919). Shakespearean Tragedy

William Hazlitt Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays

W.H. Auden Lectures on Shakespeare

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