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Moreover, when Desdemona's handkerchief goes missing, and Othello approaches her about it, clearly thinking that she has given it to Cassio, Desdemona does not suspect that Emilia has taken the handkerchief from her.
Unfortunately for Desdemona, her trusting nature ends up being her fatal flaw. Othello becomes increasingly cruel to Desdemona throughout the course of the play. Although the audience is not aware of their entire romantic history, it appears that they have been involved in a platonic friendship for a substantial period of time, but only involved in an intimate relationship for a short period of time. The audience is certain that the marriage has been of a relatively short duration. However, despite the fact that there cannot be a long history of Othello treating Desdemona appropriately, Desdemona plays the role of obedient wife. At the end of the play, Othello orders Desdemona to stay in her bed. In light of Othello's increasing cruelty towards her, Desdemona seems aware that obeying his instructions may result in her death. In fact, Desdemona speaks of her possible death, going so far as to instruct Emilia to use one of her bed sheets as a death shroud, in the event of her death (Othello, IV. iii, 26-27). Of course, this instruction may have another meaning, one that demonstrates that Desdemona is trying to remind her husband of her faithfulness:
Othello is a Moor, one of the North Africans remaining in Spain after the overthrow of the Islamic governments there (note he possesses "a sword of Spain, the ice-brook's temper" (V.ii.250)). As such he might maintain one of the Muslim customs: the sheet from the wedding night was carefully preserved, the blood-stain on it serving as proof of the bride's virginity before marriage. Desdemona might hope for the mark on her wedding sheet to lend strength to her arguments of eternal faithfulness (Lockett,
In spite of her feelings, Desdemona decides to continue trusting her husband, somehow confident that the fact that she has done nothing inappropriate will protect her. Her trusting nature lasts until practically the last moment of her life. Near the end of the play, Othello comes to their bedchamber and begins speaking of killing her. He even instructs Desdemona to pray so that she does not die in sin. Rather than running away or trying to raise an alarm, Desdemona simply questions him about why he is upset (Othello, IV. iii, 45-51).
Unlike Othello and Desdemona, who demonstrate their flaws from the beginning of the play, Cassio's flaw is hidden through the first part of the play. Some would suggest that Cassio's flaw is that he cannot hold his liquor, because it was his drunken behavior that placed him in a position of vulnerability to Iago. However, it is not Cassio's behavior while intoxicated that really damaged him. Cassio was well aware that he was unable to drink, but is so concerned about how others view him that he allows Iago to goad him into drinking (Othello, II. iii). Iago is also aware of how Cassio handles liquor, and has planned the occasion so that he can demonstrate to Montano that Cassio is a drunk, something that Iago has already told Montano. The incident leads to a fight between Montano and Cassio, in which Cassio becomes unreasonably violent. This violence is the direct result of Cassio being overly concerned with his reputation, because he could have walked away from the dispute, simply permitting Montano to believe the worst of him. The fight places Cassio in Othello's disfavor and leaves Cassio in a position of using Othello's trusted people, Desdemona and Iago, to try to curry favor with Othello. This position is a perfect one for Iago, who can then manipulate Cassio in such a manner that it appears he is in love with Desdemona.
Of course, Cassio's tendency to be boastful and extravagant have also contributed to the idea that he and Desdemona could be having an affair. For example, in the beginning of the play, Cassio seems overly concerned about what Montano will think of Othello's new bride. Not only does Cassio worry about what people will think of him, but also about what people will think of those to whom Cassio is loyal. As a result, when Cassio first describes Desdemona to Montano, he does so glowing terms, which could lead an observer to believe that Cassio has romantic feelings for Desdemona (Othello, II. i, 79-89). The reality is that, at that point in the play, there is little to suggest that Cassio has any real knowledge of Desdemona, and even less to suggest that his feelings for her are anything more than platonic.
While the other characters have weaknesses that makes them vulnerable to Iago's exploitation, the whole scenario would have been impossible without Emilia's loyalty to Iago. It is difficult for the audience to understand why Emilia would be loyal to Iago, since Iago seems to delight in mistreating his wife. It is clear to the audience that Iago believes that his wife has been unfaithful, even if it is difficult to determine who he believes has been her lover. Emilia makes it clear that she is willing to do almost anything, even betray Iago, in order to put Iago in a better position. Desdemona, like most newlywed women, effusively declares that she could never be unfaithful to Othello. Emilia disagrees with her, asking, "why, who would / not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for't" (Othello, IV.iii, 81-83). With this statement, Emilia makes it clear that she is willing to do just about any harm to herself, in order to further Iago's goals. During the play, Iago repeatedly asks Emilia to do things that she knows are wrong. While she does not know how Iago plans to use these small actions to contribute to a great tragedy, she is aware that he is doing something inappropriate. However, despite her misgivings, she does as Iago requests her to do. For example, Emilia is the one who steals Desdemona's handkerchief, which is the one item of physical proof that Iago uses to demonstrate that Desdemona is being unfaithful to Othello.
Given that the theft results in Desdemona's death, it would be easy to damn Emilia for stealing the handkerchief. However, one must consider the unique circumstances of the play before doing so. There is absolutely nothing inherently sinister in another man possessing a woman's handkerchief. In fact, of the many thousands of ways that Cassio could have come into possession of Desdemona's handkerchief, only a handful of them would signal wrongdoing on the part of Desdemona. Even though the handkerchief is one that Othello gave to Desdemona, it would seem probable to a logical person that she gave it to Cassio in friendship or misplaced it, not that she gave it to him as a token of affection. After all, how likely is it that a woman is going to give her lover a love token that was originally given to her by her husband. Therefore, Cassio's possession of the handkerchief is not the significant event; it is Desdemona's ignorance that Cassio has the handkerchief that becomes important, which is why Iago had Emilia steal the handkerchief, rather than borrow it. Because Desdemona does not know that the handkerchief is missing, she is bewildered when Othello begins to question her about it, and, her answers about its whereabouts, which are unknowingly false, give Othello support for the idea that she is being dishonest with him, which, in turn, supports the idea that she has been unfaithful.
One also has to understand Iago and his overwhelming jealousy to understand how he needs to make Emilia part of his plan to hurt Othello. Unlike the other characters in the play, Emilia and Desdemona seem to have a real friendship and to genuinely care about one another. While the friendship is not one of equals, since Emilia is a servant to Desdemona, that lack of equality does not mean that the women do not genuinely care for each other. Therefore, it must seem perfect to Iago that he can use Emilia as a weapon to injure Desdemona and Othello.
Finally, there would be no tragedy in Othello without investigating Iago's dishonesty. In order to understand how Iago could convince Othello of Desdemona's disloyalty, one first must investigate why Iago would want to do such a thing. At the beginning of the play, it seems clear that Othello has never actually done anything horrible to Iago. While he overlooked Iago in order to promote Cassio, the slight was not such a significant one that it would logically lead to the type of behavior Iago engages in throughout the play. However, Iago is an incredibly jealous man who allows perceived slights and mistreatment to direct his behavior. Iago's flaws are apparent…[continue]
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