Othello: A Guide to the Play

By Joan Lord Hall | Go to book overview

4
THE MAJOR CHARACTERS

DESDEMONA

Characters in a play cannot truly be considered as independent units. We build our responses to them not only from what a character says and does, but also from what other persons in the play say about the character and how he or she interacts with these other dramatis personae. During the course of the action, as E. A. J. Honigmann notes, these impressions may have to be "cancelled or modified," for dramatic characters, like real people, often "appear to be a mass of contradictions." 1 And in the play's dialectic, characters continuously reflect on one another, so that Desdemona's innocence is highlighted by Iago's evil machinations and counterpointed by Emilia's worldliness. They also trade on one another's strengths or vulnerabilities; Desdemona's naivete and warm loyalty to those she loves, revealed in her spirited defense of Cassio, makes Iago's deception of Othello easier. As Iago triumphantly tells the audience, he can "turn her virtue into pitch, / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all" (2. 3. 360-62).

The complexity of the three main protagonists has led to opposed views of them and thus to significantly different interpretations of Othello. So, even though characters in this play are bound to one another in what Barbara Everett calls a "curious degree of close relationship," 2 it is helpful to isolate these major ones for analysis, to assess how plausible are the critical evaluations of them. Like Iago and Othello, Desdemona has proved elusive. While most readers will interpret her as a realistically developed character, it is worth remembering that she began, on the most material level, as a "female artifact created by a male imagination and objectified in a boy actor's body." 3 And to a large extent, she turns out to be constructed by the men in the play -- Brabantio, Roderigo, Cassio, Iago, and, of course, Othello -- who all read her somewhat differently. 4 Critics have been more extreme in their judgments. In the late seventeenth century, Thomas Rymer found her coarse, while John Quincy Adams, writing in the nineteenth century, judged her harshly as a "wanton" who received her just deserts. 5 Early-twentieth-century commentators, such as A. C.

-63-

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Othello: A Guide to the Play
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Notes x
  • Journal Abbreviations xi
  • 1 - Textual History 1
  • Notes 8
  • 2 - Contexts and Sources 11
  • Notes 22
  • 3 - Dramatic Structure 29
  • Notes 57
  • 4 - The Major Characters 63
  • Notes 94
  • 5 - Themes 103
  • Notes 116
  • 6 - Critical Approaches 121
  • Notes 142
  • 7 - The Play in Performance 151
  • Notes 200
  • Bibliographical Essay 209
  • Index 217
  • About the Author *
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