Othello Essay, Research Paper
ROLE OF WOMEN ESSAY
When reviewing literature, a major question being posed lately is what exactly are women’s roles in various books. The works, which I am particularly concerned with in this essay, are William Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Thomas More’s “Utopia”. I will be examining various themes of “Othello”, in order to figure out where exactly women fit in with the work. These include things like the symbols used, the expectations and virtual rules for a female at the time (especially one from a privileged background like Desdemona), her responsibility (or lack of, perhaps) for the events of the play and the female character’s importance in the play in general. I will also be enquiring in the essay as to whether Desdemona was deserving of the treatment she got (or whether she got the respect she deserved) and the different roles she plays in the book (and her avoidance of stereotypification). Her elopement with Othello also raises many questions (in Shakespeare’s time and even more recently). In “Utopia”(which I feel has less of an emphasis on the role of women since it appears to be more concerned with humans in general, but still raises important points on gender), I will be examining if there’s a background behind More’s image of women and his considering of them as more fragile. I will also be attempting to figure out just what is their role in his literary Utopia (and if these ideas are in any ways revolutionary, considering their time).
Brabianto has a false image of Desdemona believing her to be the perfect daughter, not realising she is mortal like all other daughters, “She that was ever fair and never proud, Had tongue at will, and yet was never loud-Ibid.”. Because of this, he believes she is a daughter that would not elope “A maid so tender, fair and happy/so opposite to marriage”. She is presented as different things in “Othello” First of all is Brabianto’s aforementioned idea that she is the perfect daughter, and thus surely not like other daughters. “A maiden never bold, of spirit so still and quiet that her mation blush’d at herself”. However, Desdemona also plays the part of the deceptive daughter, “She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee”.
Her image almost appears to be contradictory at certain stages, she talks brazenly and sexually with Iago in Act 2 like a woman who appears to have everything well sussed out but with incredulous innocence and naivety, she cannot believe in betrayal by Act 4, “Beshrew me if I would do so such a wrong, for the whole world”. Could this transformation be behind Othello’s accusation that Desdemona was shedding “Crocodile tears”. Due to being a white Venetian woman, her marriage to Othello changes the way she is viewed as well. She becomes a sexually tainted woman who through her choice of partner, is condemned as black.
Desdemona also rejects stereotypification because she runs away not with a handsome young white man but with a much older black man. Her marriage is seen in a negative light however when it’s discovered that her marriage has killed her father who appears to have foreseen the consequences. “Thy match was mortal to him, and pure grief”. This is substantiating the notion those males, in this case her father, and know best and those females follow their heart too much. Her former disobedience partly dispels the image of her as a victim. By the last scene, the transformation is complete. Desdemona’s last words are a self-indictment, something, which has puzzled critics. This is basically a victim protecting her abuser.
Desdemona’s various characteristics which all don’t necessarily fit in with each other perhaps portray a truer picture of women than a one-sided all virtuous or all-evil heroine. She is presented as the perfect daughter at the start, but most wealthy fathers of the time probably considered their precious daughter “perfect”. Her tainting after marriage with Othello is an example of the lack of distinction of wives from their husbands in Shakespearean times. Since a wife was almost only seen as an extension of her husband, it’s not surprising but slightly disturbing that she was labelled “black” after marrying a black man. Also, Desdemona is constructed in terms of Bianca and Emilia, because all women are the same in a misogynistic culture. Desdemona is not simply the opposite of Bianca.
Symbols are regularly used in “Othello” to illustrate what a woman life was really like in the times of Othello, i.e. what their role in society was. The quote “They are all but stomachs, and we are all but food, To eat us hungrily, and when they are full, They belch us”, pretty much sums up the sort of life a woman faced as she grew up and got married, they had a purpose and were expected to fulfil it. Also, the handkerchief in “Othello” is a symbol for female silence. Silent and obedient women in the 16th and 17th centuries were often into sewing. Othello laments her after deciding her death by saying “So delicate with her needle”. The needles Excellency (1631) cautioned women to “use their tongues lesse, and their tongues more”.
I believe it was Iago who was in this case the snake fouling the Garden of Eden (an exaggeration perhaps, but with the exception of Othello’s paranoia, it appeared to be a loving and well-suited marriage). The theme’s (prejudice and unbridled jealousy) are all characteristics of the males only. I also believe that Emilia was innocent in the whole matter. She was a good but a weak woman. She was unaware of her husband’s intent and when Othello questions her about her mistress’s (Desdemona) habits, she staunchly defends Desdemona’s virtue. It could be said that Othello’s and Desdemona’s love was a real and true one, although human frailty aside, if he loved her that much, he should probable have believed her word over a person he knew far less and one with a grudge against him. There is possibly a comment on how eager people were to dismiss women as being capable of adultery and how a man, even a potential enemy or rival’s word would be believed before a woman’s, even a wife.
I feel that Othello contains a reversal of roles from what was perceived as the norm in Shakespearean time. In fact, a boy often played Desdemona when the play is acted out in theatres. Desdemona acts independently in choosing a husband herself; a rare, daring and very shocking move for those involved, like Brabianto. Also, Desdemona regarded the mind more than the features of men, with a singularity rather to be admired than imitated. Neither is Desdemona to be altogether condemned for the unsuitableness of the person whom she selected for her lover, He was a soldier, and a brave one; and by his conduct in bloody wars against the Turks, had risen to the rank of general in the Venetian service, and was esteemed and trusted by the state. On the other hand, “It’s possible that Desdemona’s sole point in the marriage was less a sexual relationship than a symbol that Othello is loved and accepted as a person, a brother in the Venetian community” (266). Paralleling Auden, Richard.S.Ide stated “Othello’s quest is for social acceptance, for entrance into the domestic circumscriptions of love and social intercourse”. So we have a woman marrying for love and a man marrying a powerful woman for her prestige, a reverse of roles, I feel. This is a typical role, in some ways though for a woman at the time, as they appear to be mere commodities at times, figures in a business transaction.
There is also an attitude that females are naturally pure in the story, Brabianto believes Desdemona has been possessed by some evil spirit that caused her to leave it, in other words, Othello enchanted her. This could be the only reason for her unusual behaviour. “How she got out? O treason of the blood! Fathers from hence trust not your daughters’ mind, By what you see them act” (I, I, 168-71). Brabianto had an idea (allusion perhaps) of what Desdemona was and her actions destroyed this illusion. Once she has been “possessed”, she must leave the house.
However, if Desdemona is possessed, she may not mean her words of devotion to him and this increases his paranoia that she could be unfaithful to him.
Othello: “Swear thou art honest”.
Desdemona : “Heaven doth truly knows it”.
Othello : “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as well”.
He also accuses her of being a devil.
“O devil, devil!
If that earth could teem with woman’s tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile,
Out of my sight!…
This again could be taken as proof that women were considered incapable of having a mind of their own.
One has to accept that there were certain cultural rules of the time by which they lived and which dictated their behaviour. There were certain things that “nice girls” just didn’t do. These may seem unusual now, although even supposedly intelligent, later century men found Desdemona’s marriage to Desdemona strange. S.T. Coleridge was quoted as saying “It would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable Negro”. Brabianto expected Desdemona, like other noble Venetian to choose a husband of senatorial rank or expectations, but in this , he was deceived. As Thomas Rymer said in his book “A Short View of Tragedy”, “There is a constant tension in “Othello” between a sense that Desdemona was right to elope with Othello and that ready of the play first articulated by Rymer that young, well-to-do, white women should not run away with blackamoors.
Desdemona, on the other hand, is only heard talking naturally with other people. Yet, she too is developed through both the content and form of her speech.
However, even though Desdemona has fewer speeches than either Othello or Iago in the play “Othello”, she is probably more essential to the play than either of them. This is similar to the important role that Cordelia played in “King Lear” without appearing in many scenes. She is possibly a more potent symbol when dead rather than alive. On the other hand, characters like Desdemona’s objections to untimely deaths are not noticed and are seen as female foolishness. Also, female bodies are much more commonplace than male bodies in plays like Shakespeare’s.
Husband’s killing their wives also appears to be a common theme. Desdemona’s earlier murder is mirrored when Iago kills Emilia “The woman falls; sure he hath kill’d his wife” (V. ii. 236). Desdemona moved her audience to pity through her helpless state of her at her death. This is perhaps an indication of a belief at the time that women were more attractive doing nothing, just lying still, as in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” which espouses the ideal of a upper class’s woman attractiveness depending on how she did “nothing”. Women also don’t appear to have the right of free speech. Female speech is a threat of phallic power. The divine Desdemona “Is free of speech”. This is because Eve’s words supposedly beguiled Adam, so women are discouraged from speaking.
In Thomas More’s utopia, women are still in a way not equal to men. When a couple gets married a wife joins her husband’s household, and men stay in the family unit until they grow senile or die and family units are headed by the oldest male, an obvious borrowing from the basic. This is still a world of men being the only gender fit to handle responsibility and women being expected to go along with the males wishes i.e. joining the male’s household. However, Utopia is also very hospitable to mothers. Not only do parents keep their children, but also the society itself is structured to make the job of motherhood as easy as possible. Women sit on the outside of the dining hall “so that if they suddenly feel sick, as pregnant women do from time to time, they can get up” (More 82). In Utopia, “[b]abies are always breast-fed by their mother,” and if the mother cannot fulfil this responsibility, other Utopian women will be glad to serve as wet-nurses (More 82). While this apparent family values belief may offend certain feminists who would object to the stereotyping of women as being solely mothers, it’s consideration for mothers still betrays a certain amount of respect for women in More’s Utopia.
More also perhaps misgudely attempts to protect women from harsher or more difficult trades “Women, for the most part, deal in wool and flax, which suit best with their weakness, leaving the ruder trades to the men”. However both men and women in their spare hours are encouraged to read, quiet an advanced idea for the time, as women weren’t always educated to the same extent as men in the 1500’s. There are differences in what both genders are allowed to do. For example women are not married before eighteen while men can’t marry before “two-and-twenty”(22). While this rule may suggest that women have more freedom by being allowed to marry earlier, it is more likely to let men have an adult life before being shackled by marriage. A quite revolutionary idea though is the comment “the women themselves are made priests”. This seldom happens and appears to apply solely to ancient widows but still is possibly more advanced than the Catholic Church today.
Of course, More’s image of women would have been heavily influenced by his deep involvement in the monastic life. More’s own experience with women could also have affected his opinions. His mother died when he was six. More’s utopia is disturbed by adulterers and sexual coveting but he appears to not blame either gender for this, unlike many others in the 1500’s who would consider women to be the temptresses leading good men astray. Other contemporary monks like Doni’s version of Utopia would have had more restrictive ideas regarding a woman’s place in a perfect world, they being quartered in a separate district.
In Othello the prostituting of Desdemona is not as base; all of it is Iago’s lies. In “Othello”, a man seeking to increase his own fortunes compromises the virtue of a young woman. Iago tells Desdemona’s father that Othello is taking advantage of Desdemona. The statement is a total lie, however, as Othello and Desdemona are very much in love and very much married, it is a case of “Framed to make women false”-Ibid. Also, Desdemona had never done harm and was always kind to Iago and his wife. Instead of putting a good man beside a bad man to illustrate goodness (Othello next to Iago),
Deviant women are also associated with a black presence, invariably male.
Most of the actual strife in the play is caused by men, in that they are the one’s most intent on causing trouble. Iago encourages Roderigo to rouse Brabantio, Desdamona’s father, and tell him of her elopement with Othello. Iago makes the announcement as alarming and disruptive as possible. Othello’s paranoia on Desdemona’s possible unfaithfulness is sparked off by Brabantio’s Othello that if Desdemona deceived her father she could also be false to her husband. Therefore, it could be said that Brabianto’s actions in some way led to his daughter’s death. It was also Iago’s embezzlement of Othello’s handkerchief (a family heirloom passed on from his mother that he had given to Desdemona), his subsequent planting of it in Cassio’s rooms and his urging of Othello to ask for it that caused the amount of suspicion that caused Othello to kill Desdemona. Even Othello at the end sees that he was nothing less than a murderer and that his wife was always faithful to him.
Othello has been given attention from feminist critics who have challenged its position at the bottom of Bradley’s hierarchy of major tragedies. Women appear to be regarded as slightly less important in “Othello”. To quote Alan Sinfield’s book “Hamlet’s special providence”, the play has been called a “domestic tragedy”, which in “masculinist criticism” implies a downgraded species of tragedy. To downgrade this is slightly inappropriate for a story about a murder of a beautiful white heiress, or for any murder in today’s society, the term domestic would cause outrage. Also, King Lear is possibly less exotic but has not been labelled that way.
It is possible that Othello has had little experience in dealing with women/anyone besides from other black men. He is a military man who understands soldiering and politics, but is easily confused in his dealings with Desdemona and Iago. He is uncertain about interpreting the actions and words of women and of all people from different cultures.
Hopefully, in this essay, I have given some sort of idea what the life of a woman in Shakespeare/More 16th century England (or in More’s literary Utopia, which was obviously influenced by the world he lived in). I feel there were certainly false expectations of women at the time and their life appeared to be organised from when they were born (which makes Desdemona’s independent stance on marriage all the more daring). There were several unwritten rules for women at the time and a lot of stereotypification, neither, of which Desdemona fitted in easily with. She didn’t exactly follow the rules but she wasn’t a stereotypical rebellious woman either due to marrying a black man much older than she marries. Woman definitely play an important role in “Othello” though, even if they aren’t onstage a lot of the time, they seem to hold the moral high ground in the play. I feel it is a insult to call the play a “domestic tragedy” due to it’s exoticness and the demeaning of a murder which calling it “domestic” basically amounts to.
Thomas More appears more concerned about humans than gender but still treats them specially in some ways, mainly protecting them or making life easier for them (if they’re pregnant). While, this protecting of women from the harsher trades and parts of life may seem condescending to a modern feminist, it would still prove a much more happier life than what they were enjoying in the 16th century and he makes some attempts at equality as aforementioned in the essay. So, basically I believe the two books accurately reflect in their individual ways what the role of a woman was in the 15 or 16th centuries and contained daring (for their time) ideas as to their treatment in the following centuries.