Desdemona's Advocacy

In the Venetian Senate, Othello tells the story of how he and Desdemona fell in love. His story is so persuasive that the Duke tries to get Brabantio to drop his accusations that Othello used magic and drugs on Desdemona, but Brabantio demands that Desdemona testify, and says to her, "Do you perceive in all this noble company / Where most you owe obedience?" (1.3.179-180). In reply, Desdemona affirms her duty to her father, who gave her life and education, but asserts that she has a higher duty to Othello, because he's her husband. She says:
                   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 show'd
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor, my lord.  (1.3.180-189)

A little later in the scene Desdemona argues that she has earned the right to accompany Othello on the expedition to Cyprus. She begins by saying, "That I did love the Moor to live with him, / My downright violence and storm of fortunes / May trumpet to the world" (1.3.248-250). What she has done in eloping with Othello is "downright violence" in the sense that it has violated social norms; she has not let her father arrange her marriage or even asked his permission to marry. And the phrase "storm of fortunes" portrays her as fiercely independent. She has taken her fortune by storm, as a warrior would take a castle by storm. Desdemona continues, saying,
My heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord:
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.   (1.3.250-254)
"Subdued" means "in harmony with" and Othello's "quality" is both his character and his profession as a warrior. Desdemona is asserting that she is very much like her husband and belongs with him, even in war. Also, by saying "I saw Othello's visage in his mind," Desdemona shows that she understands and rejects the bigotry that is directed at him. A person's "visage" is his face, and she understands that most Europeans consider black to be ugly, but she saw past his face to his honor and courage, which she adores. If she is left behind, she will be desolate. She wins the argument; the Duke allows her to do what she wants. [Scene Summary]

In the course of persuading Cassio that an appeal to Desdemona is the best way to get his job back, Iago says of her, "She is of so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition, she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested" (2.3.319-322). Iago is a liar, but he turns out to be right about Desdemona; she makes a vigorous case to Othello on behalf of Cassio. [Scene Summary]

When Cassio asks Emilia for a word with Desdemona, and Emilia reassures him that "all will sure be well. / The general and his wife are talking of it; / And she speaks for you stoutly" (3.1.42-44). So it turns out that Desdemona has taken up Cassio's cause even before he asks her to. [Scene Summary]

When Cassio asks to speak to Othello on his behalf, she makes a bold promise, saying "before Emilia here / I give thee warrant of thy place" (3.3.19-20). A "warrant" is a legally binding promise, and that's why Desdemona says "before Emilia here." Emilia is the witness that Desdemona has personally guaranteed that Cassio will get his job back. Desdemona then goes on to say just how she will do it. "My lord shall never rest; / I'll watch him tame and talk him out of patience; / His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift" (3.3.22-24). In the sense that Desdemona uses the word, "watch" means "keep awake." Desdemona will keep Othello awake arguing Cassio's case; in bed with Othello, she'll argue Cassio's case; at the dinner table ("board") she'll argue Cassio's case so hard that Othello will think he's in a confessional ("shrift"). She concludes by declaring "Therefore be merry, Cassio; / For thy solicitor [lawyer] shall rather die / Than give thy cause away" (3.3.26-28).

When Othello appears, Desdemona keeps her promise to Cassio. She tells her husband that he should restore Cassio to his position because he is "one that truly loves you" (3.3.48). She argues that Cassio "errs in ignorance and not in cunning" (3.3.49); in other words, he's not a bad man, he just made a stupid mistake. Othello tries to put her off with soft words, and says that he'll decide later, but she applies more pressure. First, she shows a bit of impatience with his excuses: "Why, then, to-morrow night; or Tuesday morn; / On Tuesday noon, or night; on Wednesday morn: / I prithee, name the time, but let it not / Exceed three days" (3.3.60-63). Then she says that Cassio is penitent and that his mistake is "not almost a fault / To incur a private check" (3.3.66-67). A "private check" is a quiet little talking-to, and for "not almost" we would use the word "scarcely" or "hardly." Desdemona is saying that what Cassio did was not bad enough to make him lose his job in the first place.

When Othello still won't give Desdemona a definite answer, she plays her high card: herself and their love. She says, "Tell me, Othello. I wonder in my soul, / What you would ask me, that I should deny, / Or stand so mammering on" (3.3.68-70). To "mammer" is to hesitate or waver, and that is what Othello has been doing. He has denied her request, but at the same time has said that he will grant it, yet has repeatedly avoided saying just when he will grant it. Desdemona says that she wouldn't treat him this way, no matter what he asked of her, and she wants the same respect from him as she gives to him. She then goes on to exclaim, "What! Michael Cassio, / That came a-wooing with you, and so many a time, / When I have spoke of you dispraisingly, / Hath ta'en your part" (3.3.70-73). To Desdemona, Othello's "mammering" is a betrayal of their love.

At this, Othello gives in. He says, "Prithee, no more; let him come when he will; / I will deny thee nothing" (3.3.75-76). The phrase "let him come when he will" means that Cassio can come talk to him at any time, and it's implied that Cassio will then get his job back. It looks like Desdemona has gotten all she has asked for. [Scene Summary]

Her success in making Cassio's case to Othello fills Desdemona with so much confidence that the next time she sees Othello she says to Emilia, "I will not leave him now till Cassio / Be call'd to him" (3.4.32-33). However, things don't turn out the way Desdemona expects. Othello berates Desdemona about the handkerchief, and Desdemona's efforts to turn the conversation to Cassio's problem only make things worse. After Othello has rushed away in a fit of anger, Desdemona has to explain to Cassio that "My advocation is not now in tune; / My lord is not my lord" (3.4.123-124). She adds that she has spoken as strongly as possible, and taken the heat of Othello's anger for doing so. Cassio, she says, is going to have to be patient: "What I can do I will; and more I will / Than for myself I dare: let that suffice you." (3.4.130-131).

Moments later Desdemona makes a case for Othello and against herself. She reasons that Othello became angry not because of anything she did or said, but because he was upset by something at work. She should have understood, rather than feeling resentful. This is how she puts it to Emilia:
                  Beshrew me much, Emilia,
I was, unhandsome warrior as I am,
Arraigning his unkindness with my soul;
But now I find I had suborn'd the witness,
And he's indicted falsely.     (3.4.150-154)
An "unhandsome warrior" is one who can't carry out his duties; Desdemona feels she has failed in her duty to stand by her man. In her soul she was bringing Othello up on charges of treating her badly, but now she feels that the witness (she herself) has lied. [Scene Summary]

When Lodovico arrives in Cyprus and happens to inquire about Cassio, Desdemona immediately thinks that Lodovico can help her help Cassio. She says, "Cousin, there's fall'n between him and my lord / An unkind breach; but you shall make all well" (4.1.224-225). However, her advocacy of Cassio's cause brings her only pain. Othello overhears her tell Lodovico that "I would do much / To atone them [reconcile Othello and Cassio] , for the love I bear to Cassio" (4.1.232-233), and slaps her, then humiliates her in public. [Scene Summary]

When Othello repeatedly calls Desdemona a whore she is devastated, but she stands up for herself, telling Othello, "By heaven, you do me wrong" (4.2.81). Then, when he asks sarcastically, "Are you not a strumpet?" (4.2.82), she makes her case for herself: "No, as I am a Christian: / If to preserve this vessel for my lord / From any other foul unlawful touch / Be not to be a strumpet, I am none" (4.2.82-85). [Scene Summary]

When Desdemona awakes and realizes that Othello means to kill her, she tries to make a case for herself but fails. To Othello's accusation that she gave the handkerchief to Cassio, she answers "No, by my life and soul! / Send for the man, and ask him" (5.2.49-50), but Othello tells her that Cassio is dead. With no witness to testify for her and no chance of changing Othello's mind, Desdemona is reduced to pleading for mercy. She pleads to be banished, not killed; to live the night and be killed tomorrow; to live an hour; to live while she says a single prayer. None of her pleas are answered. He kills her. [Scene Summary]