The theme of a female’s role in a society is explored in many ways in Othello. Through the eyes of Emilia, we see inequalities in marriage and women’s own perception of men. Emilia offers a take on marriage and relations of genders that would have been truly ahead of Shakespeare’s times in Act IV, Scene 3. In this scene, Emilia and Desdemona are talking in Desdemona’s room after she was ordered by Othello to immediately go to her chambers. Like an obedient child waiting for punishment, Desdemona does as she is told. After she naively expresses her disbelief over a possibility of a woman cheating on her husband, Emilia offers her a different point of view and laces her monologue with hints that Desdemona should not just meekly take all the mistreatment that Othello dishes out at her.
Emilia argues that women are the same as men and that they have the same reasons for being unfaithful. Just like men, women have weaknesses, desires, inappropriate affections that lead them to this shameful act of infidelity. Her words in no way advocate for infidelity, but rather advocate for raising awareness that women are no different than men when it comes to making mistakes driven by the desire for “sport,” the simple sexual desire for enjoyment. This speech makes the contrast between Emilia and Desdemona’s approach to marriage very clear. Compared to Desdemona who is a romantic that has an ideal, monumentalized version of love and marriage that she puts above all else, Emilia recognizes that there is a double standard around gender and fidelity and she is looking for a reasonable middle ground. Emilia suggests that the “ill” a woman does is a response to being wronged by a man.
Throughout the whole play we only see women represented in two very distinct ways – pure virgins or dirty “whores” and Emilia’s progressive view is the only one that challenges this portrayal of women. Her monologue could be viewed as a response and a counterargument to her husband’s speech in Act II, where he put forward ideas that were full of resentment and criticism towards women and, subsequently, complete opposite of what Emilia tries to argue. While for some, Emilia’s speech might be a true act of transgression, others might think that this is just a brave front of a woman who feels a bitterness created by her own marriage (Gay). It is true that her speech reflects the attitude of a woman whose marriage does not even provide her companionship but there is no denying that some of the ideas she puts forward in the 16th century are components of feminists’ main arguments in the 21st century.
Although Bianca might appear as inconsequential first, she plays an integral role in Othello. While her character also plays into the preconceived stereotypes, Bianca can be separated from the other female characters of the play because she is able of achieving something they are not: “She challenges her alleged “whoredom” and survives (Bastin).” This is to say that Bianca is also put through the systematic torture of being subjected to constant misogyny, however, she manages to break the silence and speak up (Ruth). She is often referred to as “trash” or “strumpet,” but only behind her back by characters like Iago and Cassio. One time when she is called such a name by Emilia she responds to her and arguably everyone else present, including the male characters: “I am no strumpet / but of life as honest as you, that thus / abuse me” (5.1.122-123). Her strong rebuttal forces the reader to see her freed from the misogynistic labels and gives her an opportunity to present herself on her own terms.
With all the evidence at hand, we can see that Othello presents problems for different types of women; outspoken or obedient. Despite the fact, that Desdemona lets her assertive and stubborn personality stay in the shadows and replaces it with traits of an obedient wife, she still dies at the hands of her lover. Emilia who foregoes her progressive thinking and plays the role of a loyal wife still falls down the black abyss created by her own husband and meets her end. As we see from the argumentation above, these women had strong personalities and great potential, but it was all diminished by their vulnerability towards the patriarchal society that continuously treated them as inferior.
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