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
fair 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...
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