Desdemona's Beauty

From the street in front of Brabantio's house Iago shouts out, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.88-89). Christianity has made the white sheep a powerful symbol of innocence and purity. Iago portrays Desdemona as a "white ewe" in order to make Brabantio angry enough to punish Othello. [Scene Summary]

When Iago tells Othello that Brabantio will try to annul Desdemona's marriage, Othello says, "But that I love the gentle Desdemona, / I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea's worth" (1.2.25-28). "Gentle" means kind, refined, and of a good family. Othello values his freedom highly, but Desdemona more highly.

A little later, when Cassio asks Iago what Othello is doing at the inn, Iago says, "'Faith, he to-night hath boarded a land carack: / If it prove lawful prize, he's made for ever." (1.2.50-51). A "carack" is a rich merchant ship. At first glance it may seem that Iago is saying that Othello married Desdemona for her father's money, but that possibility is never mentioned again, not even by evil Iago. It's possible that Iago considers Desdemona a "prize" just because she's beautiful.

When Brabantio arrives to confront Othello, he says that it's impossible that "a maid so tender, fair and happy" (1.2.66) could ever love a scary black man like Othello. [Scene Summary]

In Cyprus Montano asks Cassio if Othello is married. Cassio answers that he is, that "he hath achieved a maid / That paragons description and wild fame" (2.1.61-62). By saying that Desdemona "paragons description and wild fame," Cassio means that she is more beautiful than any possible description of her beauty, more beautiful than the wildest story of any woman's beauty. Then when Desdemona arrives, gallant Cassio is extra gallant. He says "O, behold, / The riches of the ship is come on shore!" (2.1.82-83), and demands that the men of Cyprus kneel as he greets her, saying "Hail to thee, lady! and the grace of heaven, / Before, behind thee, and on every hand, / Enwheel thee round!" (2.1.85-87). Later he holds her hand and kisses his fingers to her, all of which convinces Iago that Cassio will be a useful pawn in his plot against Othello.

Later in the scene Iago tells Roderigo that Desdemona is already in love with Cassio. Roderigo seems shocked, and says, "I cannot believe that in her; she's full of most blessed condition" (2.1.249-250). Nevertheless, Iago persuades Roderigo to go along with his scheme to get Cassio fired from his position. [Scene Summary]

Alone with Cassio the first night in Cyprus, Iago says that Othello left early because "he hath not yet made wanton the night" (2.3.16) with Desdemona. Then, apparently trying to confirm his suspicions about Cassio and Desdemona, Iago makes comments about how sexy Desdemona is. He says that "she is sport for Jove" (2.3.17). Cassio replies that "She's a most exquisite lady" (2.3.18). Iago pushes on, promoting the common male idea that a good-looking woman is naturally hot. He says, "And, I'll warrant her, full of game" (2.3.19). "I'll warrant her" means "I'll guarantee that she is," and to be "full of game," is to be sexually playful. Cassio goes along with Iago to certain extent. He says, "Indeed, she's a most fresh and delicate creature" (2.3.20); Cassio is agreeing that she's attractive, but he refrains from drawing any conclusions about her sexual inclinations. Iago answers, "What an eye she has! methinks it sounds a parley to provocation" (2.3.21-22). This seems to make Cassio uncomfortable, and he answers, "An inviting eye; and yet methinks right modest"(2.3.24-25). Iago continues, "And when she speaks, is it not an alarum to love?" (2.3.26), but Cassio only answers "She is indeed perfection" (2.3.28), and Iago finally lets the matter drop.

Later in the scene, after he has lured Cassio into getting drunk, fighting, and thereby losing his position, Iago again brings up the subject of Desdemona. He says,
I'll tell you what you shall do. Our general's wife
is now the general -- I may say so in this respect, for
that he hath devoted and given up himself to the
contemplation, mark, and denotement of her parts and
graces: confess yourself freely to her; importune
her help to put you in your place again. 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: this broken joint between
you and her husband entreat her to splinter . . . .   (2.3.314-323)
Cassio agrees that this is a good plan, and when he is gone Iago fills us in on his plan to ruin Cassio, Othello, and the beautiful Desdemona. [Scene Summary]

In the central scene of the play, after Iago has already ignited the fires of jealousy in Othello, Othello tries to make himself believe that he's not jealous. He says, "'Tis not to make me jealous / To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, / Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well; / Where virtue is, these are more virtuous"(3.3.183-186). He's right. Beauty and an outgoing personality don't make a woman loose. But he wouldn't have to remind himself of that if he weren't jealous and if he didn't -- to some extent -- believe that an attractive woman is likely to go bad.

Later in the scene, Othello sees Desdemona coming to him, and -- looking at his beautiful wife -- says, "If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself! / I'll not believe't" (3.3.278-279). He means that she looks like an angel, and it would be a dirty trick of heaven to make a bad woman look so good, so he won't believe that she's bad. But it's too late; her beauty can't overcome his jealousy. [Scene Summary]

After Othello has seen the handkerchief in Cassio's hand, Iago encourages Othello's murderous mood by reminding him that Cassio gave the precious handkerchief to his whore. Iago's point is that both Cassio and Desdemona are trash, like the whore. For once, however, Othello doesn't respond exactly as Iago has planned. Othello says, "I would have him nine years a-killing. A fine woman! a fair woman! a sweet woman!" (4.1.178-179). No punishment would be too cruel for Cassio, but when Othello thinks of killing his wife, he thinks of how beautiful and loving she is. To us, Othello's anguish may be heartbreaking, but it makes Iago nervous and he says, "Nay, you must forget that" (4.1.180). Othello understands that if he's going to kill Desdemona he must harden his heart against her, and he says, "my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand" (4.1.182-183), but then he adds, "O, the world hath not a sweeter creature! she might lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks" (4.1.183-185). Again Iago warns Othello against such thoughts, but Othello goes on until Iago tells him that her beauty makes her crime worse. To that, Othello responds, "Nay, that's certain. But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!" (4.1.195-196). Iago, of course, knows no pity, for beauty or anything else, and in a few moments he has gotten Othello to name the time, place, and method of Desdemona's murder. [Scene Summary]

In the appalling scene in which Othello accuses Desdemona of being a whore, he asks her what she is, and she answers that she is his loving wife. He then says, "Come, swear it, damn thyself / Lest, being like one of heaven, the devils themselves / Should fear to seize thee: therefore be double damn'd: / Swear thou art honest" (4.2.35-38). She is "like one of heaven" because she looks like an angel. He's planning to kill her, but she doesn't look like she deserves it, so he wants her to sin by lying to him. A little later he exclaims, "O thou weed, / Who art so lovely fair and smell'st so sweet / That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne'er been born!" (4.2.67-69). Though Othello is disgusted with Desdemona, he longs for her so achingly that he wishes she had never been born, so that he wouldn't know this pain.

Towards the end of the same scene Iago is trying to persuade Roderigo that Cassio needs to be killed. Roderigo is reluctant, and Iago finds it necessary to remind him of what he's about to lose. He tells Roderigo that unless something happens, tomorrow Othello "goes into Mauritania and takes away with him the fair Desdemona" (4.2.224-225). In a moment, Roderigo begins to agree to Iago's plan. [Scene Summary]

In the scene in which Roderigo tries to kill Cassio, Othello enters briefly, hears the cries of the men, thinks that Cassio is dead, and then goes to kill Desdemona. As he leaves the scene he says, "strumpet, I come. / Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are blotted; / Thy bed, lust-stain'd, shall with lust's blood be spotted" (5.1.34-36). To Othello, Desdemona's eyes have been magical "charms" because when he sees them he feels love, not murderous hate. But now he says that the magic of her eyes has been blotted out ("forth") of his heart, and so he's ready to kill her. [Scene Summary]

In the last scene of the play, Othello looking upon the sleeping Desdemona, tells himself that he's going to kill for the "cause," the crime that she has committed, but then he says, "Yet I'll not shed her blood; / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster. / Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men" (5.2.3-6). Looking at her beauty leads him to kiss, not kill, her. And when he kisses her he says,
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne'er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow's heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love.   (5.2.16-22)
One kiss leads to another, and then another, so he has to remind himself that she must die. He tries to resolve his inner struggle by saying that if she looks as beautiful when she's dead as she does now, he'll love her after he kills her. We might say that he's only fooling himself, that he doesn't love her, only his image of her. However, he tries again to reconcile love with killing by saying that "this sorrow's heavenly; / It strikes where it doth love." He means that he feels the agony of the Christian God, who punishes those He loves, because He loves them

At the very end of the play Othello pays a last tribute to Desdemona's beauty, saying that he "Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe" (5.2.347-348). [Scene Summary]