Ah, Desdemona. One of Shakespeares‘ most beloved female characters. Known for her unwavering faith, virtuous character and eternal optimism, it can be easy to victimise Desdemona. However, if this short and spicy speech is anything to go by, there is a strength and conviction behind this young heroine that makes her “half the wooer” [1.3.176].
In the wrong hands Othello the play can be deeply problematic. Alike many of the Bard’s plays, Othello is a riff on a short story, Un Capitano Moro, written approximately 39 years earlier. The play centres around Iago’s deep seeded jealousy and racism, after he is overlooked for a promotion. This ‘green-eyed monster’ spirals out of control across the five acts, and eventuates in Othello being convinced by Iago that Desdemona, his new bride, is cheating on him. Now, portray Iago as a ‘not very convincing player’, and you have a racist play. On the other hand, portray Iago as the most sadistic, psychopaths around, you have a trusting soldier in Othello who is led astray.
The outcome aligns with the tradition of Shakespeare’s Tragedies… lot’s of death. Including the very innocent Desdemona. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s cast ourselves back to a happier time.
It’s important to contextualise the players who are present within this scene.
- Desdemona is a white, young woman of high social standing.
- Brabantio, Desdemona’s rich, senator who has great influence within the high echelons. There is no mention of Desdemona’s mother being in the picture, however alike many Shakespeare fathers, Brabantio views his daughter as property, and has quite a nasty streak.
- Othello is a general in the army, and a ‘moor’, which is a word used to describe someone with African or Arabic heritage.
The catalysis of this interaction is the secret, interracial matrimony of Desdemona and Othello. Something we would later find out was a ‘mortal’ ‘wound’ [5.2.203] to Brabantio, who was alerted in the late hours of the night, and stormed a military meeting to confront the Duke as to why one of his men would ‘tup his white ewe’ [1.1.87]. There, Brabantio confront’s Othello and Desdemona.
My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty.
To you I am bound for life and education:
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty,
I am hitherto your daughter. But, here’s my husband:
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.
Hitherto: up to now
My respected father,
In this situation, I am torn in two.
To you, I owe you everything in my life,
and for this I respect you deeply,
just as so many respect you too.
Othello is now my husband.
And just like the obligation my mother
showed to you when she prioritised you over her father,
So must I prioritise Othello over you.
When portraying this monologue, have fun playing with Desdemona’s sweetness and strength. Use the ‘but’ as a cog to turn the script on Brabantio and don’t shy away from her strength. We need to know she is not a victim, but a forthright woman who ultimately believes that good will overcome all.
For more Female Shakespeare Monologues