Women’s Roles in Othello Shakespearean England was a thoroughly patriarchal society, with very few rights for women. This culture was borne of the perspective that women were of a lower worth in society than men, a view reflected in the treatment of the majority of women by the men in their lives. William Shakespeare wrote many plays about social issues across Europe, and his play Othello was especially focused on the mistreatment of women in England.
Though Desdemona and Emilia, the two main female figures in Othello, have horrific deaths, they advance the feminist cause by denying the female stereotypes set by their male counterparts. In Shakespeare’s time, men had particular views on women and Shakespeare shows these views through the speeches of his characters. In Shakespearean society, there were “two male fantasies” of women- one “negative, of the shrew, and the other, the ideal of the submissive subordinate. The submissive subordinate is easily manipulated by men, and never does anything to promote her own interests, but while the shrew is oppositely verbally abusive and oversteps her societal constraints by being overly opinionated, her disobedience just reinforces the negative outlook on women at that time. In this way, being an opinionated woman is akin to being party to stifling feminism, and both categories of woman have the same result (1C). Iago and Othello both show how a woman’s pride is her downfall- in Act II sc i, Iago says that “`she that was ever Boyle 2 air and never proud’ is a rare, perhaps nonexistent woman”, and this familiar view of women as proud and strong enough to be unconventional allows Othello to become “all the more easily convinced by Iago” (3A). Iago’s traditional view of male dominance seems to originate from his “little contact with women in the play”. Instead of seeing the true women in front of him, Iago, like Brabantio in Act One Scene I, only sees his “dream”- the horrible woman portrayed in his society (5B).
Though Othello “voices clearly a bitter hostility towards women and towards sex”, it also “demonstrates… a contrasting view”, one that creates irony between the women that “compel our admiration partly for their command of the very virtues which Iago and the satirists believe them to lack” (3B). Desdemona, the wife of Othello in the play, is often portrayed as an angel who could do no wrong, perhaps in order to show the wrongful monstrosity that is her death to the audience. In any case, Desdemona is seen as the ideal woman, with “courage and dignity”, but not the ability to confront her husband (2D).
She seemingly “idealizes Othello” to the point where she “cannot recognize that he is as susceptible to irrationality and evil as other men. ” (2E). Whereas Emilia “immediately suspects that Othello is jealous”, Desdemona cannot think of her husband as anything other than perfect, as any adoring wife should (2E). Seemingly defending Othello to the very end, Desdemona’s last words are of her husband’s innocence, showing that she is a “maiden, never bold”, how the men of her life see her (1A). She appears in all senses of the word “passive” until the very end, and remains silent, never blaming her husband (1A).
Even during her heart to heart with Emilia in the Willow Song, Desdemona refuses to admit that any woman could wrong her husband, because, to Desdemona, that is no wife at all. While all of these things appear true, Desdemona is a lot stronger of a character than just an example of an every-woman for Othello and Iago to sharpen their (figurative) claws on. She is actually “an actor, as adept as Iago”, able to manipulate from within. While she pays respect to her father, Desdemona’s acts of “disobedience and miscegenation” become “acceptable” and “expected behavior”.
She hides her second side- that of a “fully sexual ‘woman capable of downright violence’” from all, especially her husband (1A). If a woman is able to hide her true self, she is not lying down and taking her lumps- she is working the people around her, managing her own life, as very few women dared to do at that time. Desdemona manages to “place outspokenness within the perimeters of appropriate wifely behavior”, saying that opposing her husband is actually aiding him, asserting herself and allowing self-expression “at the expense of male authority”(1D).
Even her marriage to Othello can be seen as a need to leave the “preciousness and perhaps effeminacy” of the white men she knows for the danger and adventure that come with Othello (2A). Desdemona is put to the test, however, once Othello begins to believe Iago, apparently sliding into a “fatal passivity”, yet her protests at his slap, the height of public embarrassment, shows her defiance and refusal to be the complying housewife who simply does what she’s told (1E).
Even while she falls from the height of her love, Desdemona continues to “mediate further for Cassio”, but “gives up speaking for herself”. This shows how Desdemona may have stopped defying for her own gain, but she still has the power to fight for her beliefs- that what has changed is not her, but in fact the “circumstances which surround her”, and she characteristically refuses to “disturb” the “system”, yet again going undercover (1E). Even at her death Desdemona is strong, ostensibly defending Othello to her own expense, but actually implicating Othello and exonerating herself.
Basing her own story on the willow song, Desdemona “uses the story of her love to render his ‘unkindness’ unquestionable”, showing that she sacrificed herself for his well-being, and so she cannot truly be the monster that he makes her out to be (1G). “In refusing to blame her lover”, Desdemona “keeps blame from herself,… her incriminations of him will only lead to his recriminations against her”, but “y loyally ‘approving’ his scorn, she seems to be subdued by her husband” exposing the “falseness and vacuity” of his story, much like Barbery in the song (1H).
This is a scene of Desdemona’s last defiance, her braking “through the code of silence expected of the dead as of women”, “destabilizing the master narrative”, and forcing Othello to admit to the crime, “undoing himself in order to undo her” (1I). Desdemona is fully in control of herself and her reputation to the very end, even as her world crumbles around her, manipulating the men and refusing to mold to fit their beliefs. Desdemona is not the only objectified woman in Othello who breaks out of her man-made box.
Emilia, Desdemona’s best friend, could be viewed as “more human” than Desdemona because she is less perfect, but she seems to be the Themis of Othello, managing to balance the scales of men and women while bringing justice to the play. Emilia shows the “common, flawed humanity of men and women”, bringing equality to the genders while at the same time mediating the characters and the audience by “voicing its ordinary spontaneous ‘low’ reactions to the… major characters”.
She is “not too scrupulous to pilfer the handkerchief, not too pure to use the word ‘whore’… yet it should be noted that in these faults she is in a twisted way considering her husband’s welfare”, balancing good and evil, becoming the balance on which the play tilts (5D). Whereas most characters in Othello come full circle (i. e. Desdemona’s purity) or don’t change (i. e. Iago’s evil), Emilia “moves from tolerating men’s fancies to exploiting them and from prudent acceptance to courageous repudiation”, no longer being the ever-tolerating woman, becoming the possessor of the key for freedom of the women in the play (5K).
She transforms from a worm to a martyr, joining the audience in point of view, and learning to speak up for herself even at the bitter end (4A). Emilia’s “instinct is for truth and for faithfulness to the best that she knows… She tells her husband in outraged love and truth” that she will say what she wants, displaying “an unquestioning courage in the face of the swords of both Iago and Othello” (3D). Though she stole the handkerchief for her husband, she did not know the extent of his evil-doing and was only truly trying to be faithful to him in order to receive the love that she craved.
This behavior, being unwittingly used by her husband for his own ends, is certainly characteristic of the woman that the men want (in order to have control and power), but Emilia, unlike Desdemona, outgrows her innocence by the end of the play. By telling her story, Emilia “dies without self-justifications or calls for revenge; instead she testifies to Desdemona’s innocence and love”, holding true to her one relationship until the very end (5J). Her story destroys Iago, and her disobedience “refutes his philosophy” that women will become slaves to their men in order to find love (5J). By choosing to speak and act as she thinks and feels, she attains psychological freedom, liberating herself from societal domination and from her own self-imposed restraints”- where imprisoned, Emilia is silent, but once free she gains life, and therefore speech, becoming a free honest soul from Iago’s possession and instrument for evil (4B). This newfound freedom does end quickly, however, because it “repudiates [Iago]’s existence and violates his psychic being; Iago’s freedom entails domination and control of others” (4C).
Therefore, when Iago can’t control Emilia, he cannot control himself for the only time in the play, and stabs her, becoming silent and imprisoned, as Emilia once was (4C). This is symbolic of the role reversal- while Emilia’s silence and ‘effeminacy’ change to her free will and control, Iago’s free will and control become his silence and suppression by others. Emilia becomes the dominant ‘pants-wearer’ of their relationship, by becoming the beacon of truth and justice that she ends as. The final female character in the play is Bianca.
While she is “foolish, inarticulate, and ridiculous”, her incredible “love for Cassio… is uncommon, in excess of what is normally expected” (3E). This love allows for Bianca’s introduction as a woman into the play, and while she does fall under the category of the model woman, Bianca is extraordinary in her attachment to Cassio, able to “combine reason with romance, mockery with affection” (5C). Her love serves as the reason for Othello’s downfall- Cassio’s dismissal of her and the handkerchief are the ‘proof’ that Othello looks for, and soon finds (3F).
Even with this casual overlook, Bianca refuses to be thrown aside, her love giving her “the courage to stay with the wounded Cassio… to avow her actions to Iago and to defy his condemnation of her” (3F). Bianca’s case, surprisingly, is one of a very average woman whose love aids her in becoming an extraordinary individual- perhaps she is Shakespeare’s show that, though the other relationships end badly, a woman who knows and loves a man like Bianca is better off than one who hates her husband or is somewhat blindly devoted to him.
Over the course of the play, the women are “lovers…faithful and courageous… they are uncorrupted, unmoved from their avowed standards and acknowledged alliances” (3D). While they are tried, and punished, severely, the women manage to break down stereotypes and objectification, and can even love the men who do this to them at the same time. While they seem to give in easily, the women of Othello manage to master their own fates, and promote the feminist ideal- that women can be the equals, or even the superiors to men, proudly and intelligently. Bartels, Emily C. “Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion ofDesire. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 36(Spring 1996): 417-33. Rpt. InShakespeareanCriticism. Ed. Michael L. LaBlanc. Vol. 79. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Reproduced in Literature Resource Center. Gale, 2004. Shaker High School MediaCenter, Latham. 5 April 2011. Web. Garner, SN. “Shakespeare’s Desdemona. ” Shakespeare Studies 9. 1976. Rpt. In Shakespeare forStudents. Ed. Mark W. Scott. Vol. 53. Detroit: Gale, 1992. 448-55. Print. Iyasere, Soloman. “The Liberation of Emilia. ” Shakespeare in Southern Africa. 21(Annual2009):69. Reproduced in Literature Resource Center. Gale, 2004.
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