Desdemona's Obedience

In the dark at Brabantio's house, when Roderigo shouts out the news of Desdemona's elopement, he portrays her as a rebellious child, saying to Brabantio that she "hath made a gross revolt; / Tying her duty, beauty, wit and fortunes / In an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and every where" (1.1.134-137). Brabantio himself exclaims, "O she deceives me / Past thought!" (1.1.165-166), but he also thinks that perhaps some black magic was used on her. [Scene Summary]

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)
It appears that Desdemona sees her womanly duty not as something that is required of her, but as her expression of love and respect.

A little later in the scene, when she's asking permission to accompany Othello on the expedition to Cyprus, Desdemona again speaks of her relationship with Othello as a matter of obedience. She says to the Duke,
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)
The phrase "subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord" is often explained as meaning "brought entirely into harmony with the essential nature of my lord." This is accurate, but the harmony that she speaks of is the kind of harmony that exists between a soldier and his commander, or between a priest and his bishop; it's the kind of harmony that results from the follower consecrating himself to the leader. [Scene Summary]

After he has persuaded Cassio that an appeal to Desdemona is the best way to get his job back, Iago has a soliloquy in which he praises his own plan to destroy Othello. Among other things, Iago says that Othello will do anything that Desdemona asks because "His soul is so enfetter'd to her love, / That she may make, unmake, do what she list, / Even as her appetite shall play the god / With his weak function" (2.3.345-348). Iago thinks that Desdemona wears the pants in the family, but Iago's judgment is questionable, since he is scornful of everyone. [Scene Summary]

The first time Desdemona pleads Cassio's case to Othello, he tries to put her off, but she persists until he says that Cassio can come see him about getting his job back. Othello makes his concession to Desdemona with a small joke: "I will deny thee nothing: / Whereon, I do beseech thee, grant me this, / To leave me but a little to myself" (3.3.83-85). Having granted her request, his request is that she stop talking and leave him alone for a while. She immediately grants his request, but as she leaves, she has one last thing for him to consider: "Be as your fancies teach you; / Whate'er you be, I am obedient" (3.3.88-89). In other words, he can do whatever he wants, and whatever he is, she will be obedient to him. But she says this only after she has gotten her way, so that she seems to be of the opinion that obedience is a two-way street. [Scene Summary]

Believing that he has just overheard Desdemona tell Lodovico that she loves Cassio, Othello strikes her, then yells, "Out of my sight!" Desdemona turns to leave, saying, "I will not stay to offend you" (4.1.247), but Lodovico says, "Truly, an obedient lady: / I do beseech your lordship, call her back" (4.1.248-249). Lodovico is shocked at what Othello has done and believes that Desdemona deserves better, especially since she has just shown her obedience. Othello, however, thinks that she's being a hypocrite, so he proceeds to humiliate her. "Mistress!" he shouts, and she stops and turns, asking "My lord?" (4.1.250). Then Othello asks Lodovico what he wants with her. Dumbfounded, Lodovico asks, "Who, I, my lord?" (4.1.251), and Othello vents his sarcasm on both Lodovico and Desdemona:
Ay; you did wish that I would make her turn:
Sir, she can turn, and turn, and yet go on,
And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep;
And she's obedient, as you say, obedient,
Very obedient.   (4.1.252-257)
Thus Othello implies that Desdemona is available to Lodovico -- or any other man -- because she can turn any which way and because she is so obedient. [Scene Summary]

After the state dinner for Lodovico, Othello gives orders to Desdemona: "Get you to bed on the instant; I will be returned forthwith. Dismiss your attendant there. Look it be done" (4.3.7-9). Then Desdemona tells Emilia, "He says he will return incontinent [immediately]: / He hath commanded me to go to bed, / And bade me to dismiss you" (4.3.12-14). In this context "dismiss" doesn't mean that Emilia is to be fired from her job; it just means that Othello doesn't want her with Desdemona when he returns. However, that is enough to alarm Emilia, who exclaims, "Dismiss me?" (4.3.14). Desdemona does not -- or is determined not to -- share Emilia's concern. She takes Othello's orders as something to be obeyed without question and says to Emilia, "It was his bidding: therefore, good Emilia, / Give me my nightly wearing, and adieu: / We must not now displease him" (4.3.15-17). [Scene Summary]

When Iago sees that Emilia is about to reveal the truth about the handkerchief, he orders her to get home. In response, Emilia says to Montano and Gratiano, "Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak: / 'Tis proper I obey him, but not now. / Perchance, Iago, I will ne'er go home" (5.2.195-197). Like Desdemona, Emilia acknowledges the duty of a wife to obey her husband, but Emilia is certain that the duty has limits. [Scene Summary]