William Shakespeare in his morality play “The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice”, presents the audience with a society dominated by men, leaving women as the inferior gender.
Therefore, the women in the play are subjugated to Shakespeare’s form of the patriarch within “Othello”, left to defend themselves from the male constructs. This essay will serve to both examine and challenge the view that women are the inferior gender within the play and are subject to the patriarch enforced by the men within Shakespeare’s narrative.
In the given extract from Act 3 Scene 3, one can see Iago planting the initial accusations of Desdemona’s infidelity to Othello, “Cassio in sleep… [said] ‘sweet Desdemona, let us be wary, let us hide our loves” stating that both Cassio and Desdemona are hiding their so-called love from Othello, which subsequently catalyses Othello’s descent into madness and jealousy.
According to both Aristotle’s and Shakespeare’s forms of tragedy, Othello, as a tragic hero, must have a tragic villain who directly affects the actions and thoughts of the protagonist. Serving as this anti-hero is Iago. From the outset of the play, Iago works to “serve [his] turn upon [Othello]” plotting and devising a plan to come about the downfall of the tragic hero.
By playing on Othello’s social insecurity and Othello’s hamartia, his easily provoked jealousy, Iago successfully contorts and manipulates Othello’s state of mind regarding his wife. By doing so, Iago forces Othello to regard his wife as an inferior being due to her moral flaws when committing the supposed adulterous act with Cassio.
Othello states “I think my wife be honest, and think she is not, I think that thou art just, and think thou art not.” The juxtaposition of Othello thinking his wife is “honest” whilst simultaneously thinking “she is not”, along with the repetition of the verb “think” demonstrates the power which Iago possesses to affect Othello’s views regarding his wife’s loyalty towards him.
One is forced to consider whether Othello respects his wife enough to trust her and have faith that she would not commit adulterous acts. After hearing Iago’s accusations towards Desdemona, Othello says “Make me to see’t: or at the least, so prove it”. The caesura reflects the sense that his trust in Desdemona is beginning to break.
However, he does demand “ocular proof”, and repeats the need for this in the same scene, reflecting how Desdemona, and not Iago, still dominates Othello’s psyche at this point. This presents the idea that compared to Iago, Desdemona, although being physically inferior within society, emotionally, she remains dominant to a certain degree.
However, one must also consider that the reason for Othello’s mistrust in his wife may derive from his social insecurity; a consequence of the social paradigms that automatically place him at a lower stance in the hierarchy of his time. When this is acknowledged, it is plausible to consider, that in fact, Desdemona is the dominant one within this relationship, due to her position as the Senate’s daughter, compared to Othello’s place as an outsider.
As he is the “Moor” amongst white people, society feared the lack of knowledge, particularly that which would pertain to his origin as well as his religion. This lack of foundation to his persona brings forth a conception of Othello that, to the rest of his society, illustrates him as the “devil”, and it is this notion that is consistently substantiated as the play takes its course.
This idea of him as the “devil” is further emphasised at the concluding line of the given extract when Othello says he will “tear [Desdemona] to pieces!” The violent verb “tear” along with the exclamatory enhances the threat given by Othello and reiterates his highly aggressive nature. Othello knows that he is stronger and superior to Desdemona and that is why he would be able to “tear her to pieces”. This idea of Othello being aggressive and vicious foreshadows the eventual murder of his wife in the concluding scene of the play.
Othello’s actions depict how he believes that he is superior enough to punish his wife for her supposed infidelity, even though he has no evidence to support the allegations. Not only does this reflect his belief pf his own superiority, but also how inconsiderate he is towards his wife for believing that she has been disloyal towards him without even questioning her about the situation. When this is considered, one can see how there is a distinction in Othello’s mind between his superiority and his wife’s inferiority.
Throughout the entirety of the play, one can clearly see how the women within Shakespeare’s “Othello” are seen to be possessions of their husbands. In the opening act of the play, the audience witnesses Brabantio, a leading politician and Desdemona’s father, state how he believes his daughter has been “abused, stolen from [him] and corrupted.”
It is evident here through the past participle “stolen”, that Brabantio believes he had ownership of his daughter for her to be “stolen from [him]”. This attitude towards his daughter accurately portrays the societal views of women being a possession under the control of men. Throughout her whole life, a woman will have a man who is in control of her; Desdemona is consistently under the control of men, beginning with her father, and then later her husband.
This never-ending, patriarchal control over her life forces her into a role of submission and subservience under men from the beginning of her life. In the same scene, as Othello leaves, a senator says “adieu, brave Moor; use Desdemona well.” The verb “use” that the senator employed suggests that Desdemona is there to be “[used]”, and that is her purpose; this ideal of women within the Jacobean society, whereby women were pushed to serve their husbands and abide by what he wishes.
Subsequently, this idea of women serving their husbands strips away their identity, leaving them only with their role as a submissive wife. In Act 3 Scene 3, after Othello and the military officers arrived back onshore after the successful operation as the Turkish fleet was destroyed, Othello greets Desdemona and says “Let me have speech with you- Come my dear love, the purchase made, are the fruits to ensue.”
One can infer that Othello seems to adopt a romantic tone within his speech, however, the verb “purchase” can also suggest that Othello has obtained his wife through acquisition. The verbs such as “use” and “purchase,” used by the senator and Othello, paint women as inferior and depict that they are there to be owned and utilized by men. With these attitudes, one can see the suppression of women within the play, and within the 17th-century society.
Contrastingly, one can see a difference between Desdemona’s relationship with Othello, and Emilia’s relationship with Iago. In Act 3 Scene 3, Emilia says “I am glad I have found this napkin… My wayward husband hath a hundred times wooed me to steal it… I nothing but to please his fantasy”. It is evident here that Emilia is conforming to the societal expectations of women for the Jacobean era to serve their husbands.
The powerful noun “nothing” emphasizes how Emilia believes that without her husband and without her purpose to serve and please him, she has lost her role within society. One may feel sympathetic towards Emilia here as she appears to be entirely dependent on her husband, thus depicting her as inferior to him.
However, as the play continues, hints of strength and determination begin to appear within Emilia, noticeably in Act 4 Scene 3. In this scene, Emilia and Desdemona talk about their opinions on marriage and relationships with men. Emilia begins with saying “nor I neither by this heavenly light. I might do’t as well I’th’dark” meaning that she would not sin in “heavenly light”, but she would “I’th’dark”.
The vast juxtaposition between “heavenly light” and darkness could connote how Emilia is supposed to be thinking pure thoughts, yet instead she is having sinful ideas, thus representing the darkness. One must also consider how Shakespeare shortens “In the dark” to “I’th’dark” which could have a double meaning. This serves a twofold purpose, placing emphasis on the idea of darkness, suggesting that Emilia is consumed by it, whilst simultaneously representing how only a short part of Emilia’s thoughts are of darkness.
Either way, the thought that Emilia could possess these ideas would have been shunned by the 17th-century audience due to the societal ideals of the time regarding women having sinful and pleasurable thoughts. Another part in the play in which Emilia maintains a level of autonomy is in the final scene, where she exposes her husband for his actions throughout the play. Emilia begins to verbally attack both Othello and Iago when she says “[Iago] lies to th’heart.
She was too fond of her most filthy bargain… as ignorant as dirt… I will not charm my tongue.” This utter rejection of the societal expectation to have a higher respect for men, but more importantly, emphasizes utter defiance against the patriarch. She regards the marriage between Othello and Desdemona as a “filthy bargain”, depicting that it has become begrimed and corrupted by the actions of Othello, painting him as a villain.
Emilia’s disobedience to her role in society as the inferior gender highlights how she refuses to conform to the expectations that are forced upon her as she stands up to defend her “mistress”, portraying her as a noblewoman protecting the name of the person who she was closest to. After she refuses to “charm her tongue”, Iago subsequently “[stabs Emilia and exit]”, leaving her on her deathbed.
One must question whether this is Shakespeare’s message to society: do not step outside of your given role in society, or you will only suffer. However, it should be considered that Emilia’s death was not because of her stepping out of her role, instead, it was her own husband’s insecurity and malevolence that lead to her murder.
This then suggests that in fact, Emilia showed immense courage and bravery to speak out against her husband, thus presenting her strengthened mindset, something which Iago arguably does not possess. When this idea is brought to light, one can see how it is Emilia who is the superior one within the relationship. Maybe not societally, but certainly regarding mental and moral strength, leaving Iago to be the inferior figure when comparing the two Shakespearean constructs.
The idea that women are inferior in the play is evident throughout, mainly with the relationship between Desdemona and the male figures in her life, firstly her father, Brabantio, and then her husband, Othello.
However, Shakespeare also explores the autonomy that his constructs can possess. Either way, there is no denying that even though characters such as Emilia try to escape the patriarch, it is in fact inescapable within the society in which she has been placed.
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