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Shakespeare's Characters: Desdemona (Othello)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 7. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. New York: J.A. Hill and Co.

At the period of the story a spirit of wild adventure had seized all Europe. The discovery of both Indies was yet recent; over the shores of the western hemisphere still fable and mystery hung, with all their dim enchantments, visionary terrors, and golden promises! Perilous expeditions and distant voyages were every day undertaken from hope of plunder, or mere love of enterprise; and from these the adventurers returned with tales of "antres vast and deserts wild — of cannibals that did each other eat — of Anthropophagi, and men whose heads did grow beneath their shoulders." With just such stories did Raleigh and Clifford, and their followers, return from the New World: and thus by their splendid or fearful exaggerations, which the imperfect knowledge of those times could not refute, was the passion for the romantic and marvellous nourished at home, particularly among the women. A cavalier of those days had no nearer, no surer way to his mistress's heart than by entertaining her with these wondrous narratives. What was a general feature of his time, Shakespeare seized and adapted to his purpose with the most exquisite felicity of effect. Desdemona, leaving her household cares in haste, to hang breathless on Othello's tales, was doubtless a picture from the life; and her inexperience and her quick imagination lend it an added propriety: then her compassionate disposition is interested by all the disastrous chances, hair-breadth 'scapes, and moving accidents by flood and field, of which he has to tell; and her exceeding gentleness and timidity, and her domestic turn of mind, render her more easily captivated by the military renown, the valour, and lofty bearing of the noble Moor. . .

When Othello first outrages her in a manner which appears inexplicable, she seeks and finds excuses for him. She is so innocent that not only she cannot believe herself suspected, but she cannot conceive the existence of guilt in others.

Something, sure, of state.
Either from Venice, or some unhatch'd practice
Made demonstrable here in Cyprus to him.
Hath puddled his clear spirit.
'Tis even so
Nay, we must think, men are not gods,
Nor of them look for such observances
As fit the bridal.
And when the direct accusation of crime is flung on her in the vilest terms, it does not anger but stun her, as if it transfixed her whole being; she attempts no reply, no defence; and reproach or resistance never enters her thought.

And there is one stroke of consummate delicacy, surprising, when we remember the latitude of expression prevailing in Shakespeare's time, and which he allowed to his other women generally; she says, on recovering from her stupefaction —

Desd. Am I that name, Iago?
Iago. What name, sweet lady?
Desd. That which she says my lord did say I was.
So completely did Shakespeare enter into the angelic refinement of the character.

Endued with that temper which is the origin of superstition in love as in religion — which, in fact, makes love itself a religion — she not only does not utter an upbraiding, but nothing that Othello does or says, no outrage, no injustice, can tear away the charm with which her imagination had invested him, or impair her faith in his honour. "Would you had never seen him !" exclaims Emilia.

Desd. "So would not I! — my love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his checks and frowns
Have grace and favour in them.
There is another peculiarity, which, in reading the play of Othello, we rather feel than perceive: through the whole of the dialogue appropriated to Desdemona there is not one general observation. Words are with her the vehicle of sentiment, and never of reflection; so that I cannot find throughout a sentence of general application.
Mrs. Jameson: Characteristics of Women.


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