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As a young Venetian woman, Desdemona has lived a sheltered life in her father's home. She falls in love, probably for the first time, with a man several years older than herself, from a faraway land, and of a different race. She's captivated by the man's stories and wishes she were a man so that she might also have an exciting life. Knowing that her father would disapprove of her marriage to such a man, she elopes with Othello and goes with him to the war zone.
Desdemona's portrait is that of a lovely, courageous, gentle woman, deeply in love with her husband. Is she a perfect character, free from flaws?
Most Elizabethans wouldn't have thought so. They would have seen her as disobedient and disrespectful. A nice young lady simply didn't marry behind her father's back. They would have shared Brabantio's disapproval of her marriage to a man of a different class, age, and race. And when Desdemona pleads with Othello to reinstate Cassio, Elizabethans would have considered her a pushy, interfering wife.
This is not to say that Shakespeare's audiences weren't moved by Desdemona's death. It's just that their opinion of her was influenced by social customs no longer current. Today, her behavior toward Brabantio, though perhaps insensitive, is forgivable; her begging Othello, even if it comes close to nagging, is hardly a major flaw.
If Iago represents evil in the world, Desdemona may represent the good that evil often destroys. She is guilty only of loving her husband too much. She has no defense against his terrible accusations because she is young and inexperienced. There's been no room in her cloistered world for the kind of thoughts Othello thinks she is hiding. She doesn't even believe that there are women who are unfaithful to their husbands!
If you look at what other characters say about Desdemona, you'll find that everyone praises her innocence, her goodness, her generosity. She risks her husband's anger because she promised Cassio she would help him. Desdemona inspires such devotion in Emilia that she is prepared to die for her. Even on her deathbed, she won't betray her husband. Rather than have him accused of the murder, she takes responsibility for it.
Is Desdemona a believable character? Is there anyone who can be so self-sacrificing? Shakespeare is careful to give her a few minor flaws-her treatment of Brabantio, her stubborn persistence about Cassio, her lie about the handkerchief-to make her realistic. But our overall impression of her is highly favorable, it's her very innocence that makes her a victim of circumstance. How could such a person know about or prepare herself for the likes of Iago?
Cassio is an attractive, likeable young man who seems to be a good choice for Othello's lieutenant. He's loyal to Othello, and is crushed when he errs and Othello fires him. It is partly Cassio's determination to make things right with Othello that allows Iago to succeed: Cassio tries to win Othello's favor by going through Desdemona; it's this friendship Iago misrepresents to Othello.
Cassio has many youthful faults: he's rash, impatient, and not very serious about his relationship with Bianca. He also can't handle his liquor. Yet the offenses Iago suspects him of-sleeping with Emilia, having an affair with Desdemona-are all in Iago's mind.
The innocent Cassio almost becomes a victim of Iago's treachery. Roderigo and Iago almost succeed in killing him. At the end of the play, however, Cassio is awarded control of Cyprus, and we believe that the island is in good hands. His survival tells us that order and decency will survive, despite the price that has been paid.