What is the ideal woman? The response to this by today’s society might differ to that of Renaissance society. In the Renaissance, women were seen as possessions. Their duty was to marry a man and show obedience and chastity. These expectations of women are shown in the play Othello, by William Shakespeare. In the play, the two prominent women, Desdemona and Emilia, both recognize the expectations of women at the time. However, the two women disagree in their views on the topic. Desdemona tries to be the ideal wife whereas Emilia takes a more feminist approach. In Othello, Desdemona and Emilia’s views on the role of women explains the traits of each character and are involved in major themes of the story.
Both Desdemona and Emilia have different views on the concept of chastity. In Act 4, there is a scene where the two are having a private conversation. This conversation starts off with Desdemona asking Emilia if she would cheat on her husband for the whole world. Emilia answers by saying “The world’s a huge thing. It is a great price for a small vice.” (4.3.54). In contrast, Desdemona answers her own question by saying “I’d never do such a bad thing, not for the whole world!” (4.3.58). Emilia’s answer is saying that she would consider cheating on her husband if the reward was large enough. Desdemona’s answer contrasts this by saying that she would never cheat under any circumstances. This part of the play shows the disagreement between the two characters on the topic of chastity. Emilia chooses a more feminist answer which acknowledges that she has the choice of cheating on her husband. Desdemona’s answer is more traditional of the time, showing that there is no choice.
Desdemona and Emilia also disagree on the idea that women are equal to men. In the same conversation, Emilia tells Desdemona:
Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them. They see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is ’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well, else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so. (4.3.70-79)
Emilia is saying that women are the same as their husbands in that they are both human being and both. She then continues to pose answers as to why men like to cheat on their wives and says that women want the same things. After she says this, Desdemona says goodnight to her and the scene ends. Desdemona’s failure to give any kind of reinforcement or agreement to Emilia’s statement shows that she does not share the same point of view. This part of the play shows the disagreement between the two on equality among men and women. Emilia again takes a feminist approach whereas Desdemona fails to agree due to her traditional views.
Both characters viewpoints on how to act as a wives relates to characteristics they present in the story. Desdemona’s has the traditional viewpoint of an ideal wife at the time of the story. This view causes her to appear as a downtrodden woman. At the beginning of Act 4, Othello questions Desdemona about her cheating on him. Desdemona’s answer does not please Othello and he proceeds to strike her. After this happens, we see Desdemona’s weakness:
Othello: Oh, you devil, you devil! You can cry all day and all night, and I still won’t believe you’re sad. Get out of my sight!
Desdemona: I wouldn’t want to stay here and make you angry. (4.1.195-196) Othello does not see remorse in Desdemona’s tears, and tells her to get out of his sight. Desdemona reacts to this with obedience by leaving and pleasing Othello. This part of the play shows how Desdemona is easily abused and how she fails to stand up for herself. Rather than stating her case to...