Desdemona's Self Esteem

On Cyprus, when Iago makes some witty and derogatory comments about women, Desdemona is inspired to ask him, "What wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?" (2.1.117). Iago doesn't exactly answer her, but goes on in the same vein about women, and Desdemona asks, "But what praise couldst thou bestow on a deserving woman indeed,--one that, in the authority of her merit, did justly put on the vouch of very malice itself?" (2.1.144-147). To put someone "on the vouch" is to make that person give favorable testimony. Desdemona is asking Iago if the merits of a really good woman couldn't make even malice say how good she is, and it looks very much like Desdemona thinks that she herself is that really good woman. [Scene Summary]

When Desdemona is promising Cassio that she will talk Othello into restoring Cassio to his position, she says of herself, "If I do vow a friendship, I'll perform it / To the last article" (3.3.21-22). A little later, when Othello shows up, Desdemona makes good on her promise. She uses every argument she can think of to get Othello to restore Cassio to his position.

When Othello won't give her a definite answer about just when Cassio can have his job back, Desdemona 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

Moments later, when it looks like Desdemona has gotten all she has asked for, she is still not quite satisfied with Othello's attitude. She doesn't want him to think that he's just indulging a whim of hers. She says, "Why, this is not a boon [favor]; / 'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves, / Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm" (3.3.76-78). In her opinion, she's the one who is doing her husband a favor. [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 storms away in a fit of anger. Desdemona's self-esteem is wounded, and -- as women sometimes do -- she starts to blame herself for what her husband has done to her. She says that when there's a serious problem, "Men's natures wrangle with inferior things, / Though great ones are their object" (3.4.144-145). In other words, something has gone wrong at work, and Othello was just taking it out on her, the "inferior thing." She reasons that if we have a finger that aches, our whole body is filled with a sense of pain, and she concludes that she has been expecting too much of Othello. She says, "Nay, we must think men are not gods, / Nor of them look for such observances / As fit the bridal" (3.4.148-150). If men are not gods, and if they can't be expected to always act as if they are on their honeymoon, then she's the one who is in the wrong. She says,
                 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]

After Othello has repeatedly called her whore, Desdemona asks Iago, "Am I that name, Iago?" (4.2.118). She uses the phrase "that name" because she does not want to say the word "whore." Emilia then denounces the very idea that anyone could think such a thing, and Desdemona seems to regain her confidence. She implores Iago to intervene on her behalf with Othello, and -- on her knees -- she swears that she has never loved another, that she has always loved him, and that she always will love him, even if he forsakes her. She goes on to say that, "Unkindness may do much; / And his unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love" (4.2.159-161).

Seeing that Othello has struck and humiliated his wife in public, then treated her as a whore, what Desdemona calls "unkindness," we would call "cruelty." This cruelty has reduced Desdemona to stunned silence, then tears, and she believes that it could kill her, but it won't make her stop loving Othello. If a woman said such a thing today, we might scorn her as an enabler of her husband's abuse, but it's likely that Shakespeare intends to show her strength, not her weakness.

Finally, Desdemona says that she can't say the word "whore" and that nothing in the world could make her be one: "I cannot say 'whore': / It does abhor me now I speak the word; / To do the act that might the addition earn / Not the world's mass of vanity could make me" (4.2.161-164) [Scene Summary]

In the scene in which Desdemona sings the "willow" song, Emilia expresses her opinion that women are entitled to take revenge for the bad things that their husbands do, but Desdemona ends the scene by saying, "Good night, good night. God me such uses send, / Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend." (4.3.104-105). "Uses" are habits; Desdemona wants God to give her good moral habits. If she has such habits she will never "pick" an excuse for bad from the bad of others. Instead, she will observe the bad of others in order to mend her own ways and become better. [Scene Summary]