Othello is among Shakespearian tragic plays as the story ends with numerous characters dead including the main principals. The play explores issues of power and the main difference that existed between male and female roles and occupation during the Elizabethan period. The play also focuses on jealousy, chastity, magic, love, murder and miscommunication. Out of vengeance Othello commits murder on the main basis of unfaithfulness.
When basing the play on feminist perspective, we can analyse and judge difference social status and values that women held in Elizabethan society. Through Othello, we get to learn of privilege practices in patriarchal marriages and restrictions and suppression of femininity in the play. According to the play, women were only meant to marry whereby after marriage they were massively held responsible for child rearing and house management.
In addition, Elizabethan society expected women to be obedient, silent and chaste to their fathers, husbands and brothers; let’s say that the society expected women to obey men in general. The society saw women to be psychologically and physiologically inferior to men. The following compares and contrast the principal female characters in the play Othello: Desdemona, Bianca and Emilia. It demonstrates the restrictions placed on women during Elizabethan era.
Women as Possessions
The play Othello clearly demonstrates women as possession. After hearing Othello’s defence and Brabantio’s complain, the Duke allows Desdemona to go with Othello to Cyprus. Iago is assigned by Othello who ironically describes him as an honest and trustworthy man to inform the Duke that “To his conveyance I assign my wife (Shakespeare 283).” Following Othello’s comments, we can clearly get to know how he views his wife; he treats Desdemona as his own possession.
Actually, Othello see her as a commodity which should be transported and guided everywhere. The first senator asks Othello just before they leave to Cyprus to take good care and look after Desdemona. On the other hand, Desdemona’s father sees her as his property. Brabantion believes that Othello stole Desdemona from him without his permission.
When Iago woke up Brabantio to inform him that Othello had eloped with his daughter Desdemona, he called out, “Awake! What, ho, Brabantio! Thieves! Thieves! Thieves! Look to your house, your daughter and your bags! Thieves! Thieves (Shakespeare 1.1.7)!” Iago is actually suggesting by his shouts that Othello had stolen Brabantio’s property.
The role and occupation of women is also depicted in Othello’s loving words to his wife Desdemona when he called her “Come, my dear love, /the purchase made, the fruits are to ensue (Shakespeare II.3.8-9).”
This clearly describes what marriage meant in Elizabethan society; it was an act of purchase whereby women were bought by their husbands as a favour while they were expected to sexually fulfil men’s desires since men considered it a return for the privilege done to them.
Iago also depicted the view of women possession by men in the society when he believed that Othello had slept with Emilia his wife. Iago said ‘it is thought abroad that “twixt my sheets/He’s done my office (Shakespeare I.3.381-2).” Iago felt very bad when he realized what Othello had used his possession and that is what drove him to revenge by insulting Emilia in public before killing her.
Emilia never complained since she is objected to obey her husband, above all to remain silent and not complain in any way. This shows that women were actually deprived of their humanity during Elizabethan era. Iago had an intention of sleeping with Othello’s wife Desdemona as a pay for what he did to him.
He clearly stated in chapter two of the play that “evened with him, wife for wife (Shakespeare II.1.290).” The feelings of women are completely ignored in the play for example Desdemona and Emilia’s feelings have been completely been disregarded in the play. This clearly brings out the fact that women were merely objects to be used by men to fulfil their own desires; they were perceived as possessions by men.
Women as submissive
Desdemona depicts women being submissive to their husbands and this can be seen when she continually obeys orders from her husband Othello from the beginning of their relationship to later stages of the play when Othello got jealous. Desdemona herself declared that “I am obedient (Shakespeare III.3.89).”
Towards the end of the play, we still see Desdemona obeying Othello’s commands; she submissively agreed to go to bed when Othello ordered her to do so. Even in her final breath though full of grief, she remains faithful and true to Othello and provides him with an ilibi which he does not put in use. This shows that Desdemona has completely accepted and respected her role as a woman in the society; she is an obedient wife to Othello.
Emilia being known as a strong character in the play also indicates her awareness of her proper roles as a woman in the society. At the end of the play when she revealed Iago’s plans, she says that “Tis proper I obey him, but not now’ (Shakespeare V.2.195).” Though Emilia decided to disobey her husband, she still felt the urge to explain why she had deviated from her responsibility as a woman.
Bianca also expresses similar sentiments but consoles herself after Cassio spurned at her because he wanted her to be circumstanced. Bianca is being forced by the laws of the society to get circumstanced, actually she did not want to put up with the idea of being circumstanced which implies that Bianca had no choice but to agree and embrace the laws of the society.
Based on what the three characters went through, we can clearly see that the society weighs heavily on women’s shoulder. This has left them feel like they need to support men themselves even if the men’s actions are not worth bearing with. Brabantion clearly expressed his thoughts concerning women as being, “of spirit still and quiet’ and ‘A maiden never bold (Shakespeare I.3.95-97).”
Brabantion actually expressed his expectations of women through his words. Women were to obey men by following all rules of nature. It was natural in Elizabethan society for feminine to do what their husbands, fathers and brothers told them. This is what was termed as being natural; any other action was termed as unnatural since the society did not recognize it.
At the beginning of the play, Desdemona is featured as a confident, defiant and strong woman; however she ended up becoming a victim of emotional and physical abuse which led to her death. Despite the fact that she was obedient and passive to her husband, she blames Othello for his violent behaviour.
Desdemona decided to take the blame of the harm; when Emilia asked her who was responsible for the bruises on her face she replies “Nobody; I myself. Farewell (Shakespeare 5.2.29).” Desdemona exhibited symptoms of a “battered woman syndrome.” However, she puts all the blame on herself and endured all the abuses from Othello.
Women as powerful
The play Othello also depict that women can also be powerful. This statement means that women in the play had the right to question men despite the fact that the society was too harsh on them. At the end of the play in Act IV, we see Emilia damming her opinions concerning men; she argues that women are not physically different from men. She states “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” (Shakespeare IV.3.92-5).
Emilia believes that women too undergo suffering just like men; they also have affections and desires. However, she believes that men are weak mentally. Emilia suggested that men are simplistic and brutish since they are not able to control their own desires with their own logical thought.
This is very evident in the play through Iago and Othello’s actions which proves of Emilia’s statement. Desdemona exhibits the strength of a woman in public when she made a powerful speech as she was trying to explain to her father concerning her duties as a woman to Othello. She openly disagreed with her father.
Women in the play are depicted as a source of strength to women. When Othello mistook his wife by believing the bad rumour that she is cheating on him, he felt like he did not want to be a soldier anymore. He was convinced that he had lost his masculine and that is why he did not have any form of desire for thrusting cannons, big wars and military music.
Desdemona’s infidelity left him emasculated. This brings out the biggest role women played in Elizabethan society; they acted as a source of strength to their husbands. Othello totally lost pleasure on the things he loved and instead filled with rage and anger to revenge back for what Cassio had done to him not knowing that it was just a bad rumour.
Women being disloyal and promiscuous
Bianca is Cassio’s lover though she is very jealous after realizing what Iago had plotted for the man loved. Bianca is referred in the play as a harlot and a whore since she is poor and coming from a lower class as compared to Emilia and Desdemona. She is used by Iago to make Othello jealous by dropping Desdemona’s handkerchief at Cassio’s feet.
This was to confirm that Desdemona was actually committing adultery. Othello actually confirmed his suspicion after Bianca conducted a good act with the handkerchief. Bianca allowed Iago to use her which made her become disloyal to her lover Cassio causing the lives of Othello and Desdemona.
Brabantio believes that since Desdemona had the strength to deceive his own father by eloping with Othello was a great possibility that she can deceive her husband too by another man. The main idea that Brabantio had was that “unruly daughter will make an unruly and promiscuous wife (Shakespeare 213).”
Iago convinced Othello that Desdemona was actually cheating on him. He told Othello that a woman who could easily obey and deceive his father is capable of screwing around with other men. Othello did not think twice, he did not see that Desdemona’s decision to escape with him was actually a sign of love and loyalty to him. He however saw it the way Iago had told him; a sign of infidelity and disloyalty.
This shows that most men in Venetian believed that those women who stood strong to oppose men were capable of doing worst things. They were considered as disloyal and promiscuous. However, often, almost in all the scenes in the play, we see that Othello is always preoccupied by matters of flesh whenever he was talking with the wife. This also brings out the role of women in the society which is objects for satisfaction.
The male society in the play despite rating women as second citizens, they also constructed them as evil for luring them into sexual sin. Iago stereotyped women by suggesting that they are not always as they appear; he believes that women are more of housewives and wild cats.
On the other hand, after Othello wrongly mistook Desdemona for cheating on him, he ceases to find any form of sexual power. While speaking to Iago concerning his plan to murder Desdemona, he becomes adamant and states that he will “not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again” (Shakespeare IV.1.203-5).
Generally, all the women in the play are accused of inappropriate sexual behaviours and prostitution yet as we see it, none of the women appear guilty of what they are accused of. This shows how men undermine women and how possessive they are such that if they get any form of information that they are or have cheated on them; they do everything within their power to avenge it. This also shows that men blame women for their failures instead of accepting that they are wrong, they put the full blame on women.
In conclusion, the play Othello explores issues of power and the main difference that existed between male and female roles and occupation during the Elizabethan period. Through the play, we get to learn of privilege practices in patriarchal marriages and restrictions and suppression of femininity in the play.
Women are taken as possessions by their men, they should be submissive and to be blamed in cases when men fails. Women are also considered as disloyal and promiscuous beings in the society. However despite the challenges women faced in Elizabethan period, we also see them standing out to be strong and courageous as depicted by Desdemona and Emilia.
Shakespeare, William. Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 1985.