The Role and Status of Women is Explored in Shakespeare’s Othello

Shakespeare’s Othello was a great play and it covered the social and political beliefs of his time. It was about a black army general, Othello who married the white daughter of a leading politician, Desdemona; their relationship was difficult to sustain in an era of racism and sexism. William Shakespeare focuses on societal expectations of women in Elizabethan society through the three women present in the play, Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca. The women behave and adhere to the social and gender stereotypes of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan society.

Othello (1995) Film

Women in Shakespeare’s Othello are seen to be the possessions of men. In the first Act of the play, Brabantio complains to the Duke of Venice and the Venetian state that Othello has stolen and “drugged” his daughter. The Senate supports Othello’s case and the duke grants permission for Desdemona to accompany him to Cyprus for the military operation. Othello speaks to Iago and informs the Duke that he will assign his wife to Iago’s care with the quote, “To his conveyance, I will assign my wife.” This quote does not seem to be quite prominent however the quote hints that Desdemona, Othello’s wife, is a type of possession, and implies that she needs to be guarded and transported. This is similar to Desdemona’s life as before she became a wife. She was a daughter under the control of her father and therefore is now a wife under the control of Othello. This was normal during Shakespeare’s time where women were considered to be the weaker sex and required protection; women were to be protected by a man when she is married. Whilst Othello exits, the first senator also said, “Adieu, brave Moor; use Desdemona well,” and this suggests in the play the word “use” replaces the phrase “look after.” This quote can also define the Venetian expectation of a woman, who bow to their husbands and utilize them at will. In the third act, scene 3 of the play, after Othello and the military officers arrived back onshore after the successful operation as the Turkish fleet was destroyed. Othello greets and come back into the castle with Desdemona and says “Let me have speech with you- Come, my dear love, the purchase made, are the fruits to ensue.” What Othello has said seems to be quite romantic and of loving words during Shakespeare’s time, as this supports the function of women after their marriage. Similar to what the first senator has said, the words such as “use” and “purchase,” the woman is bought by the husband, as property, and she is expected to fulfil the husband’s desires for the privilege of being married.

In addition, women in Shakespeare’s Othello are represented as a sex object and are represented as passive individuals in the play. for example, men use abusive terms to women, women don’t use abusive terms back. Iago in the play uses very sexist and offensive language because he believes women are annoying sex obejects, and we see this from the beginning of the play. After the meeting with the Duke and senate on the plans of war for the invading Turks, Iago and Roderigo are alone on stage. Roderigo is listening to Iago for plans, Iago comments on his relationship and love-sickness which will govern men’s appetites. He comments that his relationship with Emilia and he would “drown himself for the love of a guinea-hen,” labelling his wife as a prostitute, and more more derogatory comments later in the play for he believes she is not satisfying him. In act 3, scene 3, after Emilia has taken Desdemona’s hankerchief as she accidentally dropped it, Emilia says “I nothing but to please his fantasy” and meets up with Iago. She is represented to be passive and only achieves Iago’s wishes, and to please him. Emilia’s efforts to please are all in vain, as at the end of the play, she voiced her opinions and the truth behind Iago’s plans, but to be silenced by Iago. Iago, in act 2, scene 1, Line 280, he has begun his sololiquy and he is talking about seaking revenge on Othello and his plans to ensure the downfall of Michael Cassio. Whilst seeking revenge, he suspects Othello has slept with his wife and even goes as far as suspecting Cassio to have slept with his wife. Iago during his soliloquy as he describes the Moor of a loving nature and states he loves Desdemona only to continue his revenge. He says, “And nothing can or shall content my soul, Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.” Iago believes by sleeping with Desdemona, he and Othello will be equal. The emotions of Emilia and Desdemona are autimatically disregarded, as Iago is treating them as objects to further his own desires.

Furthermore, Shakespeare represents women as victims of society whom are forced to follow social norms of the perfect woman or have suffer a tragic fate for disobeying this system, for they are treated as the weaker or lower ranked sex. This is shown mostly through Emilia and her marriage with Iago, and Desdemona, whom is the perfect wife in the play. Othello bids goodnight and asks for Desdemona to wait in bed for him, and Desdemona talks with her maid, Emilia about her love for Othello, as well as different attitudes to marriage and fidelity. Desdemona in Act 4 Scene 3, sings the “Song of Willow”, a song which laments a lady’s lost love, and Desdemona and Emilia discuss about their opinions in marraige. The song is originally about a man who dies because of love’s cruelty and Shakespeare changes the victim to a woman to suit Desdemona. This song uses an authorative voice to emphasise her innocence and as a victim in a male dominant society. This foreshadows Desdemona’s imminent tragedy due to her lover’s cruelty, Othello. When she is asked by Emilia in her dying breath who committed such crime, she answered, “Nobody; I myself. Farewell.” This response is unusual as she does not accuse her husband but takes blame on herself, as punishments on Othello would only lead to further punishments on Desdemona, and dies. Following the lines of singing, Emilia and Desdemona discuss about marriage. Emilia, who talks most sense here, argues for equality in marriage, give balanced rights to women, and blame husbands for the issues. In the earlier parts of the play, in Act 3 Scene 4, after Othello swears and shouts at Desdemona for the disappearance of the hankerchief, Emilia speaks to Desdemona and comments on some qualities of men. She says, “Tis not a year or two shows a man” and the following sentences, “They are all but stomachs, and we are all but food, they eat us hungerly, and when they are full, they belch us.” Shakespeare through the eyes of Emilia representing women as a victim of society. Emilia, being abused by Iago, argue for equality as men “throwing restraint upon, us or say they strike us” and “they slack their duties.” Women are seen to be sexualized, weak, and inferior to men, as a result are used by men with Emilia’s analogy as food. She states women do have similar emotions, similar interests and similar affection as men do with the sentence, “Their wives have sense like them, they see and smell.”

Moreover, there is a variety female criticism regarding Desdemona and how she was represented in the play from the view of feminism. Women are constructed by society in Shakespeare’s time as from another critic as “constructed as biologically weak and socially inferior. So they must depend on men and should not disobey or transgress their decisions.” Through the eyes of feminism, the two important female characters, Desdemona and Emilia, these two characters are determined and have strong personalities but have to conform to the society of male dominance. Another critic, Lisa Jardine in 1987 said “Here is a women’s defining knowledge; private, domestic and sexual, requiring to be hidden from the public view in the interest of decorum and modesty.” Desdemona, as a young independent, strong determined young woman, ended up as a tragic hero because she was vulnerable to oppresion of society. She took action and resulted in her death. For example, she was determined to marry Othello, a Moor when racism and prejudice against black people was normal. She also disobeys her father, and during that period of time, fathers were as masters to their daughters. After Brabantio gave up in arguing for his case in Act 1 Scene 3, Desdemona stands up against her father and says “So that dear lords, if I be left behind, A moth of peace and he go to war, the rites for which I love him are bereft me.” She states the importance of her accompanyment and in the last sentence “By is dear abscence. Let me go with him.” This last sentence is quite important as it shows a resistant and stubborn nature, and did not ask for permission, gave herself permission. From the critic Lisa Jardine, “In the Elizabethan age, the domineering wife brought shame and humiliation upon her husband,” and Desdemona is opposite to the norm and according to Neeley in 1984, another author, “the focus of Othello is love, which drives Desdemona but is tempered by her wit and realism.” These quotes from Neeley show Desdemona, and in the novel and how she speaks as a strong female. In the same act and same scene, when Desdemona came to speak to her father, she begins with “My noble father”, says,“so much I challenge I profess, due to the Moor my lord” and from lines 177 to 187 is a vital speech in supporting her independence and strength. She made the decision and is unlikely to go back, and persuaded her father without offence, showing intellect as a female in an female oppressed society. Desdemona is a determined woman but in the end succumbs accepting that she is a woman and inferior, she now “serves” Othello and not her father. She was bold enough to deny her father but only bold enough to server her husband. Her character is shaped by the society, and thinks only a man can solve her problems, and she thinks as a woman, she is less intelligent and capable and therefore asks Iago. From another critic Marsh, “In the distress she feels, she turns to a man for help. This suggests she does not expect to understand for herself, but a man will be able to explain to her.” She becomes the victim of the play in a society of male dominance, and she is abused and oppressed with comments such as “strumpet” and “whore.” Othello does not fulfil his duties as a husband and hits her in public, and eventually his jealously kills Desdemona.

In Shakespeare’s Othello, the theme of the role of a female and a female in a society is explored in many ways. Through the eyes of Emilia and Desdemona, we can truly nurture the feelings of even a woman of the elite, Desdemona, succumbing to society expectations. Through Emilia, we can see the inbalances in society and how women are treated in Shakespearean times. Even though Desdemona, considered by many critics and readers to be a intellectually capable and strong woman, the stereotype and the fact that she is a woman bounds her to what she can do.

Willow Song

Bibliography- (accessed on the 27th of April) For reference to my criticism of Desdemona

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