Othello

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Desdemona Character Analysis

The Daughter of the Venetian senator Brabantio. Having been charmed by Othello's tales of exotic lands and military exploits, Desdemona elopes with him before the play begins (although they do not consummate their marriage until they have received sanction from the Duke and, reluctantly, her father). Desdemona is a model wife, if perhaps too trusting of Iago. She follows Othello to Cyprus and shows constant loyalty to him, even to the moment of death, when he kills her on false suspicions that she has been unfaithful.

Desdemona Quotes in Othello

The Othello quotes below are all either spoken by Desdemona or refer to Desdemona. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Prejudice Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of Othello published in 2015.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
"Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her!
For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid, so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, t'incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight."
Related Characters: Brabantio (speaker), Othello, Desdemona
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 1.2.82-90
Explanation and Analysis:

Brabantio and his men have arrived at the inn where Othello is staying. Iago has advised Othello to go inside in order to avoid a confrontation with Brabantio, but Othello has decided to stay, declaring that he is a loyal soldier and husband to Desdemona and thus he has nothing to be ashamed of. Brabantio, having learned about his daughter's marriage, accuses Othello of enchanting Desdemona and binding her in "chains of magic"; he claims there is no other explanation for why she would choose to marry Othello. He uses racist language to describe Othello, calling him a "thing" with a "sooty bosom," and saying that it would make more sense to fear him as opposed to love him. 

This speech is a pertinent example of the racial prejudice directed at Othello by the other characters. Brabantio's words reflect the widespread idea that Othello is not a normal human, but is either an animal-like "thing" or a fantastical being with supernatural powers. Note that Brabantio's horror emerges in particular from the thought of his daughter, whom he describes in terms that evoke pure white womanhood ("a maid, so tender, fair, and happy"), being intimate with Othello ("run... to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou"). Desdemona is presented as de-sexualized, an innocent child, whereas Othello is suggested to have sinister sexual powers akin to magical enchantment. As well as indicting Othello, this idea robs Desdemona of agency; Brabantio considers it impossible that she has chosen to marry Othello of her own free will. 

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Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
"I do perceive here a divided duty."
Related Characters: Desdemona (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.209
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello has told the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him, and promised the other characters that if they ask Desdemona, she will confirm that she loves him and married him willingly. Desdemona arrives, and when Brabantio asks her who she obeys, she responds that she feels she has a "divided duty," although after this quote she admits that, because he is now her husband, her primary allegiance is to Othello. The behavior of Desdemona and Othello in this scene proves that they are both honorable, truthful people who are honest about their allegiances––a characteristic that puts them in direct contrast with Iago. 

The fact that Desdemona is questioned about her "duty" reveals that, in the world of the play, women are not considered people in their own right, but only ever exist in relation to men––first their fathers and brothers, and then their husbands. Indeed, one reason why Desdemona and Othello's marriage is considered so scandalous is because Desdemona has willingly chosen to marry a man her father did not select for her. Aside from this one act of rebellion, however, Desdemona unfailingly performs the submissive, dutiful role expected of women, as is evidenced in this quote. When asked about her marriage to Othello, Desdemona speaks of a "divided duty" between her husband and father, ignoring her own feelings altogether. 

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
"Oh heavy ignorance! Thou praisest the worst best."
Related Characters: Desdemona (speaker), Iago
Page Number: 2.1.158-159
Explanation and Analysis:

Desdemona and Iago have arrived in Cyprus, and while they wait for Othello's ship to join them they engage in flirtatious conversation. Iago has entertained Desdemona by telling riddles about "foul and foolish" women; Desdemona laughingly accuses him of "heavy ignorance" for praising such qualities. To some extent, their exchange confirms Desdemona's sweet and earnest nature, as she rebukes Iago for praising negative characteristics. On the other hand, the decidedly flirtatious element of their conversations suggests that Desdemona is perhaps not entirely morally innocent. At the same time, she might also simply be fulfilling the expectation that women should always behave in a pleasant, agreeable manner, rather than expressing strong opinions. Such ambiguity highlights the difficulty of adhering to the strict, complex, and in some ways contradictory code of behavior demanded of women. 

In any case, the fact that Desdemona is at least mildly flirting with Iago lends a hint of plausibility to Othello's paranoia about her possible infidelity. A further layer of tension emerges from Desdemona's accusation that Iago "praisest the worst best." Although Desdemona is referring to Iago's humorous banter, she has unwittingly made an accurate judgment of Iago's fundamental personality. After all, Iago is a Machiavellian villain who does indeed value the worst qualities––selfishness, duplicity, and ruthlessness––over moral attributes such as fairness and honesty. The fact that Iago can jokingly present himself this way without Desdemona catching on to his true nature demonstrates both Desdemona's trusting innocence and Iago's deceptive charisma.

"Her eye must be fed."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Desdemona
Page Number: 2.1.246
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio have exited to start celebrating the victory over the Turks, leaving Roderigo and Iago alone onstage. Iago assures Roderigo that Desdemona's feelings for Othello will not last, proclaiming confidently that "her eye must be fed"––meaning she'll want a more handsome lover soon. This assertion conveys the stereotype that women are fickle and shallow, and emphasizes the idea that Desdemona and Othello's union isn't viable. It also reiterates the racist view that Othello is unattractive because he is a Moor. This comment therefore demonstrates the way in which strong racist and sexist prejudices affect Othello and Desdemona as individuals and as a couple, threatening the stability of their marriage. 

Act 3, scene 3 Quotes
"Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years – yet that's not much –
She's gone."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Desdemona
Page Number: 3.3.304-3.3.308
Explanation and Analysis:

Still alone, Othello reflects on his conversation with Iago and frets that perhaps it is unrealistic to expect Desdemona to truly love him, considering he is black, uncivilized in speech, and older than she is. Here we see the result of Iago's tactic of reverse psychology; while Iago encouraged Othello not to think too much about the situation before there was more evidence, Othello is left in a fretful, paranoid state, trying to evaluate if he is good enough for Desdemona. It is also clear from Othello's words that his fears are far more emotional than rational, and are rooted in the incoherent logic of racism.

This is the second time that Othello has referred to himself as a crude and unskilled speaker, and yet all evidence points to the falseness of this statement. Meanwhile, the fact that he is older than Desdemona is hardly significant, considering it was common for young women to marry older men at the time. The only objective fact that in this speech is that Othello is black; however, at no point in the play does Desdemona express even the slightest concern over this fact. On the other had, Othello's experience of racism at the hands of the other characters is frequent and severe. Thus, regardless of what Desdemona thinks, he cannot escape the internalized racist idea that their racial difference makes their marriage unviable. 

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
"Her honor is an essence that's not seen;
They have it very oft that have it not."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Desdemona
Related Symbols: The Handkerchief
Page Number: 4.1.20-21
Explanation and Analysis:

Iago has told Othello that he knows Cassio and Desdemona slept "naked in bed" together, but pretends to still want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Iago has repeatedly referenced the handkerchief, saying that it belongs to Desdemona and that she could therefore give it to whomever she wants; Othello asks if she could likewise give away her honor, and Iago replies that her honor is intangible, and that many seem honorable when they are actually not. Following Othello's obsession with "ocular proof," Iago now fixates on the distinction between visible and invisible evidence, and stresses the unreliability of evaluating Desdemona's "honor" because honor is not visible. 

Note that Iago's statement "they have it very oft that have it not"––meaning many people appear to be honorable but aren't––does not actually apply to Desdemona, but does accurately describe Iago himself. Indeed, the phrasing is reminiscent of Iago's statement earlier in the play, "I am not what I am." Once again, Iago is making wise and astute observations about the nature of human behavior, yet uses these observations to further his deceptive and evil plan. 

Act 4, scene 2 Quotes
"Upon my knee, what doth your speech import?
I understand a fury in your words
But not the words."
Related Characters: Desdemona (speaker), Othello
Page Number: 4.2.37-39
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello has interrogated Emilia about Desdemona and Cassio, but Emilia insisted that there is nothing between inappropriate about their relationship. Unsatisfied, Othello has dismissed Emilia and summoned Desdemona. Noticing her husband's emotional state, Desdemona kneels before him and asks what's wrong, saying she hears from his tone that he is angry but doesn't understand why. Desdemona's words here convey her total innocence, and emphasize that despite her husband's irrational behavior she remains completely loyal and devoted to him. The fact that she kneels before him demonstrates how willing she is to play the role of a submissive and subservient wife, and highlights her honesty and vulnerability. Her enduring deference to Othello (which remains even after she knows he will murder her) makes her death at his hands even more tragic. 

"O thou weed
Who art so lovely fair, and smell'st so sweet,
That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst never been born"
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Desdemona
Page Number: 4.2.77-80
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello weeps as he addresses Desdemona, who tells him she hopes she is not the reason why he is upset. However, Desdemona's innocent behavior only further infuriates Othello, who believes she is deliberately deceiving him, and in this passage he calls her a "weed" and tells her he wishes she had never been born. Othello's language here conveys the sexist stereotype that women's attractive appearance and seductive capabilities were a dangerous trap designed to mislead and ruin innocent men. The sensual reaction caused by women's beauty ("the sense aches at thee") was thought to impair the wise and rational judgment men were supposed to naturally possess. 

At the same time, this passage also reveals the impossible contradiction many women found themselves in. Society demanded that they be "lovely fair," and held that a sweet, pure appearance reflected inner goodness and honesty. Yet the moment a woman's honor was brought into question, her attractive appearance could be used as evidence of her supposed duplicity. 

Act 5, scene 2 Quotes
"Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cuning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have plucked thy rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again;
It must needs wither."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Desdemona
Page Number: 5.2.7-16
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello, holding a light, has entered the bedroom where Desdemona lies sleeping. Watching her, he remarks on the purity of her snow-white skin, and vows not to shed her blood when he kills her. In this passage, he draws a parallel between putting out the light he is holding and extinguishing the light of Desdemona's life, and contemplates the finality of murdering her. Unlike a candle which can be relit, once Desdemona dies she will be gone forever. It seems as if Othello can almost predict the regret he will come to feel after murdering Desdemona and discovering her innocence. 

At the same time, the light in this passage can also be interpreted as a symbol for purity, and Othello's resolve to murder Desdemona is stoked by the fact that he believes she has already destroyed her purity and innocence by having an affair with Cassio. Both these metaphors emphasize the fragility of women's existence in the play, as both their honor and even their lives are at the mercy of men, who––as Othello demonstrates––cannot always be trusted to act rationally. 

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Desdemona Character Timeline in Othello

The timeline below shows where the character Desdemona appears in Othello. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 1
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...Roderigo has paid Iago a lot of money to help him win the hand of Desdemona. Yet he has just learned that Desdemona has eloped with Othello, the Moorish (North African)... (full context)
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Iago and Roderigo go to the house of Brabantio, a senator and Desdemona's father. They shout from the street that Brabantio has been robbed. Brabantio comes to the... (full context)
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Brabantio emerges from his house without finding Desdemona. Furious, lamenting his life as wasted, he says that his daughter has been stolen by... (full context)
Act 1, scene 2
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...Othello that Brabantio is likely to try to legally force a divorce between Othello and Desdemona. Othello seems unconcerned. (full context)
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...he has dutifully served the state of Venice and his conscience is clean: he loves Desdemona. (full context)
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...Roderigo along with Brabantio and his men arrive. Brabantio states that Othello must have enchanted Desdemona, or else why would she have gone "to the sooty bosom of such a thing... (full context)
Act 1, scene 3
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...otherwise have considered. The Duke promises to help Brabantio prosecute the man who has seduced Desdemona, but when he learns that the accused man is Othello he gives Othello a chance... (full context)
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Othello admits that he married Desdemona. But he denies using any magic to win her love, and says that Desdemona will... (full context)
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Desdemona arrives. Brabantio asks his daughter to whom she owes obedience. Desdemona responds that just as... (full context)
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...must go to Cyprus to lead its defense. Though the Duke at first suggests that Desdemona stay in Venice with her father, Brabantio, Othello, and Desdemona all object, and the Duke... (full context)
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Brabantio exits, but not before warning Othello to watch Desdemona—since she disobeyed her father, she might disobey her husband. (full context)
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Because Othello must leave for Cyprus that night, he decides that Desdemona should follow after him in the care of Iago, and asks Iago to have his... (full context)
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Iago and Roderigo are left alone. Roderigo, convinced his chances with Desdemona are now hopelessly lost, talks of drowning himself. Iago mocks Roderigo for such silly sentimentality.... (full context)
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...money, and decides that he will convince Othello that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, and in so doing also get the position of lieutenant. He adds that Othello has... (full context)
Act 2, scene 1
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The Venetian ship carrying Desdemona, Iago, Emilia (Iago's wife), and Roderigo is the next to arrive. As soon as they... (full context)
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As they wait for Othello to arrive, Iago and Desdemona banter. Iago portrays all women, whether beautiful, ugly, smart, or foolish, as generally deceptive and... (full context)
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Cassio, courteous as always, takes Desdemona's hand and speaks with her privately for a moment. Iago notices, and says that this... (full context)
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Othello arrives, in triumph. He is overjoyed to see Desdemona, and says that he is so happy and content he could die now. She responds... (full context)
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Iago tells Roderigo that Desdemona is bound to tire of Othello, and want instead someone younger, more handsome, and better-mannered.... (full context)
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In fact, Iago says, Desdemona already loves Cassio, and he asks if Roderigo noticed them touching hands. Roderigo did, but... (full context)
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...his second soliloquy. He says that he thinks it likely that Cassio does indeed love Desdemona, and believable at least that she might love him. He says that he himself loves... (full context)
Act 2, scene 3
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...to do, but that he will make sure to see to it himself. Othello and Desdemona leave to consummate their marriage. (full context)
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When Othello and Desdemona are gone, Iago praises Desdemona's beauty while also slyly suggesting that she might be a... (full context)
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...that he loves Cassio as well, but that he must dismiss Cassio as an officer. Desdemona arrives, awakened by the noise. Othello leads her back to bed, and also promises to... (full context)
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...to ask Othello to return him to his position. Iago, however, counsels him to approach Desdemona for help. Desdemona is so kind and generous, and Othello so in love with her,... (full context)
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...which he says that his advice to Cassio is actually good advice, and that enlisting Desdemona's help is the best way for Cassio to regain his position. But he adds that... (full context)
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...himself beaten by Cassio and given Iago almost all his money, but does not have Desdemona. Iago tells him to be patient, notes that Cassio has already been removed as an... (full context)
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...plan: he will get his wife to set up a private meeting between Cassio and Desdemona, then make sure that Othello observes this meeting. (full context)
Act 3, scene 1
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Emilia enters, and tells Cassio that Othello and Desdemona have been talking about his situation. Desdemona spoke strongly in his favor. Othello responded that... (full context)
Act 3, scene 3
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Desdemona, Cassio, and Emilia enter. Desdemona assures Cassio that she will help him regain his position.... (full context)
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When Othello reaches Desdemona, she asks him to reinstate Cassio. Othello promises to do so soon, but won't give... (full context)
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...so honest, but in the process plants the idea of an affair between Cassio and Desdemona in Othello's mind. (full context)
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...dangers of "the green-eyed monster" (3.3.165-7) of jealousy, while at the same time noting that Desdemona did successfully deceive her father. Othello claims not to be jealous; though it is obvious... (full context)
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Iago exits. Othello, alone, now voices worry that perhaps it's unrealistic for him to expect Desdemona to love him when he is black, not well mannered, and considerably older than she... (full context)
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Desdemona and Emilia enter to tell Othello it is time for dinner. Desdemona tries to soothe... (full context)
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...Iago by the throat, and commands him to come up with "ocular proof" (3.3.360) that Desdemona has been unfaithful or else be punished for causing Othello such emotional pain. (full context)
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Iago responds that it's probably impossible to actually catch Desdemona and Cassio in the act of infidelity, but that he can provide circumstantial evidence. He... (full context)
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...Iago cautions Othello that it was just Cassio's dream and may not signify anything about Desdemona's faithfulness. Then Iago asks whether Othello once gave Desdemona a handkerchief with strawberries embroidered on... (full context)
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...out in aguish, then kneels and vows that he will take revenge on Cassio and Desdemona. Iago kneels and vows as well. Othello makes Iago his new lieutenant. (full context)
Act 3, scene 4
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In her quarters, Desdemona sends the clown to tell Cassio she has made entreaties on his behalf to Othello,... (full context)
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When the clown exits, Desdemona wonders what has happened to her handkerchief. Emilia, who is also present, says she doesn't... (full context)
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Othello enters. He takes Desdemona's hand, and notes that it is moist. When Desdemona tries to bring up Cassio's suit,... (full context)
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Uncomfortable, Desdemona says she doesn't have the handkerchief with her, but that it isn't lost. When Othello... (full context)
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Iago and Cassio enter. Cassio asks about his suit, but Desdemona tells him that he must be patient—for some reason Othello seems not himself and her... (full context)
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Desdemona surmises that Othello's bad temper must arise from some affair of state. Emilia wonders again... (full context)
Act 4, scene 1
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...Othello, then lets slip that Cassio has actually told him that he has slept with Desdemona. Othello grows frantic, almost incoherent, then falls into an epileptic fit. (full context)
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...says that he will get Cassio to talk about the details of his affair with Desdemona, and that Othello should hide and watch Cassio’s face during the conversation. Othello hides. (full context)
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...promises to kill Cassio. But it is less easy for him to think about killing Desdemona. He keeps remembering what a kind, beautiful, talented, and delicate person she is. But Iago... (full context)
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Just then, Desdemona enters with Lodovico, an envoy who is carrying orders from the Duke of Venice that... (full context)
Act 4, scene 2
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Othello questions Emilia, who insists that nothing has happened between Desdemona and Cassio. He orders her to go get Desdemona. Othello assumes that Emilia is helping... (full context)
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Emilia returns with Desdemona. Othello sends Emilia outside to guard the door. Othello than says he could have handled... (full context)
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Desdemona asks Emilia to fetch Iago, whom Desdemona then questions about Othello's behavior. Emilia thinks that... (full context)
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Roderigo enters, angry that he still does not have Desdemona despite all the jewels he's given to Iago to pass on to her. He says... (full context)
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...that he's been working diligently on Roderigo's behalf and can promise that Rodrigo will have Desdemona by the following night. He then tells Roderigo about Cassio being promoted by the Duke... (full context)
Act 4, scene 3
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After supper, Othello invites Lodovico on a walk. Before leaving, he orders Desdemona to go directly to bed and to dismiss Emilia. Emilia helps Desdemona prepare for bed.... (full context)
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Desdemona then asks Emilia whether she would commit adultery. Emilia responds that woman are just like... (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
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...killed Cassio. Moved by Iago's loyalty to him, Othello steels himself to go and kill Desdemona in her bed. (full context)
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...then exits, sent by Iago to bring news of what has happened to Othello and Desdemona. (full context)
Act 5, scene 2
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Othello enters Desdemona's quarters, holding a candle. Standing over Desdemona as she sleeps, he admires her beauty, kisses... (full context)
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Just then, Desdemona wakes. She calls out to Othello, who answers, and then tells her to pray in... (full context)
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Emilia calls from the doorway. Othello mistakes her calls as noises made by Desdemona, and smothers Desdemona again. (full context)
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...is Emilia who is calling. He draws the curtains back around the bed to hide Desdemona's body. Then he goes to speak with Emilia, expecting her to tell him of Cassio's... (full context)
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Emilia opens the curtains and to her horror sees Desdemona, who with her dying breaths says that she is innocent, but then denies that she... (full context)
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...almost proudly) admits that he killed her for being unfaithful to him. Emilia denies that Desdemona was ever false to him, but Othello counters that it was "honest, honest Iago" (5.2.156)... (full context)
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Montano, Graziano, and Iago enter. Othello admits once more, this time to Graziano, Desdemona's uncle, that he smothered Desdemona. Graziano is shocked, and says that it is a good... (full context)
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...Iago while Graziano stays to guard the door. Othello is left with the body of Desdemona and the dying Emilia. Emilia sings a verse of the song "Willow," and dies while... (full context)
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Manhood and Honor Theme Icon
...searches his chamber and finds a sword. Graziano enters to find Othello armed and mourning Desdemona. Moments later Lodovico and Montano enter with Iago, whom they've captured. Cassio also enters, carried... (full context)
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...takes out a hidden dagger and stabs himself. He falls onto the bed next to Desdemona and dies while giving her a final kiss. (full context)