If we accept momentarily that there is a female companion archetype in fiction, as outlined in How Stories Really Work, then it’s worth looking at Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello in its light. Whether we examine E. M. Forster’s Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, or Elizabeth Bennett in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or Cathy in her sister’s Wuthering Heights, or Lady Macbeth, or Ophelia, or Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations, female companion figures are often represented as needing fulfilment (usually through marriage) and, at worst, as hollow, haunted phantoms.
The transformation of Desdemona into such a hollow figure lies at the heart of Othello’s tragedy alongside Othello’s own flaw. Iago seeks to destroy her physically and emotionally: what we see unfold during the play is Iago creating this dark and hollow archetype in Othello’s mind. From Act I Scene III, Iago begins to paint a picture:
After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear
That he [Cassio] is too familiar with his wife.
Othello’s tragedy is that he buys into this falsity:
Even so my bloody thoughts with violent pace
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.
While the play is primarily viewed in terms of Othello’s blind jealousy and tragic revenge, the transposition of an innocent women into a dark archetype is the mechanism used to inflame him.
Emilia makes the connection between the handkerchief and Othello’s need for ‘ocular proof’, revealing Iago’s dishonesty to Othello; she has the presence of mind to question Desdemona’s claim that she was killed by ‘no one but herself’, showing a better understanding of her mistress’ genuine character than Othello ever had: ‘She says so: I must needs report the truth.’ It clearly has been Iago’s intent to create a poisonous image of Desdemona to replace the real person.
Othello’s despairing realisation of Desdemona’s innocence and his own blindness - ‘Like the base Indian threw a pearl away/ Richer than all his tribe - comes to him too late, obviously. The protagonist understanding his own weakness is the core of any Tragedy. So while the play is not about Desdemona and the final impressions seem to rise above her death into a realm of tragedy and ironically beautiful revelation - leaving our thoughts, and our compassion, primarily for Othello - all of these effects have been caused through Iago’s manufacturing of a classic and powerful female companion archetype during the course of the play.
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