Othello: DesDEMONa

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been discussing soliloquies in Othello. I’ve mentioned before the lack of balance between the number of solo speeches Iago has compared to that of the Moor. Of the major characters, only Desdemona doesn’t have a soliloquy. She doesn’t have an inner monologue. We have no insight into her.

Obviously, this is by choice (if Shakespeare wanted to, he could have given her more soliloquies than even Iago…but of course, that would be a different play [maybe from a different century, definitely a different writer]). When discussing the inequality of male soliloquies, I pondered her total lack, wondering “Can we never know what is in Desdemona’s head or heart because she loves such a man as Othello?” I felt, and still feel, that that would be a horrifying thought.

But what if that wasn’t the reason?

What if she doesn’t have any soliloquies because she is an empty vessel, different for every other character in the play?

For Othello, she is “gentle” (I.ii.25), “sweet” (III.iii.55), his “soul’s joy” (II.i.183), one who has so charmed him as to make him willingly become her thrall–

But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the seas’s worth.
  • I.ii.25-28

For Iago, she’s merely meant “to diet [his] revenge” (II.i.291) against the Moor, nothing more than a pawn.

For Cassio, she’s a paragon, “a most exquisite lady…indeed perfection” (II.iii.18,25).

For Emilia, she’s someone “honest, chaste, and true” (IV.ii.17), someone to be protected, to be taught in the ways of the world.

In a sense, she’s a cipher, a character of no value in and of itself, but one that amplifies all other characters. And what if that’s the point?

Let me float this idea: Shakespeare built his play from an existing source, one in which only one character had a name: Desdemona.

Shakespeare could have very easily looked at that name and saw at its center a word that could become the symbolic hole at the center of the play. One of the meanings of “demon” in Shakespeare’s day was “an inner or attendant spirit” (“demon, n. II.7” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 8 February 2016.). By removing any internal monologue from this character, he could remove its “inner spirit,” creating a shell of a character into which all the other characters could pour their needs, wants, and desires.

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