Throughout history, the mistreatment of women for arbitrary reasons has been well documented. During the Elizabethan period, women were severely abused and were considered far inferior to men. However, William Shakespeare’s play “Othello” presents a contradiction to the commonality of the time. My hypothesis is that the character of Desdemona was illustrated by Shakespeare to stand up to the typical image of a woman of this period.
Primary Source Analysis:
Desdemona is displayed as a confident woman throughout the text; something that was extremely uncommon to the time. Elizabethan period women were expected to be servile and accepting that they were of lower social standing than men. Several examples of this are provided in the text itself. One example of which is in Act 1 Scene 3, when Brabantio discovers that Desdemona has married Othello without giving blessing. Othello first asserts this, then Brabantio looks to his daughter to confirm. Desdemona reassures Brabantio of his importance and foundation to her life, saying “To you I am bound for life and education”. However, she then says ‘But here’s my husband”, referring to Othello. This shows Desdemona is active and direct in affirming her role as Othello’s wife. If such a situation occurred in Elizabethan times, it’s unlikely a woman would be so confident in standing up to her own father. However, Desdemona does the contrary and defends her decision.
Another case of Desdemona’s backbone is from Act 4 Scene 1, where Othello begins to lose faith in his wife through Iago’s rumours. Othello hits Desdemona in face, fueled by Desdemona’s alleged unfaithfulness. Instead of Desdemona being accepting of her husband’s treatment of her, she instead replies “I have not deserved this”. This too would not be standard of the time. One final instance of Desdemona’s confidence is in Act 5 Scene 2, where Othello is just about to kill her. Among her final words is the phrase “Guiltiness I know not”. Despite all Othello’s gullibility in believing Iago’s falsely incriminating evidence, Desdemona still protests her evidence, although futile.
The first perspective is that yes, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Desdemona was made to stand up to the mistreatment of women at the time. One critic who agrees with this is Kim Ballard, author of an article entitled: ‘Daughters in Shakespeare: dreams, duty and defiance’. Although not specifically confined to Othello, Ballard provides multiple cases of Shakespeare writing of characters, especially daughters, with a longing to defy the arbitrary and unfair customs.
Ballard writes: ‘A picture emerges of a dutiful but stifled daughter looking for a life beyond the confines of her family home’. The author recognises Shakespeare’s illustration of Desdemona as a girl who has a bursting desire to defy her father and choose her own path. Ballard also notices that Desdemona appears more rebellious and confident in comparison to other Shakespearean women, as she realises that her resistance is backed up by ‘an account of her position to her father’. Furthermore, it is identified in the article that Brabantio is softened as he relents to Desdemona’s requests, as Ballard recognises the presence of modern day feminism as a man gives way to a woman’s determination. As a whole, the article is very supportive of Desdemona’s strength and confidence.
This perspective is corroborated with by Rubina Mandokhail in her paper ‘A Feminist critique of the character Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello’. Mandokahil defines feminism as ‘a movement that challenges the patriarchy and stereotype attached to women gender’. It is written that ‘Desdemona is one of those characters who is powerful, strong and whose exercise of her rights caused her doom’. The paper shows not only of Desdemona’s position in her time, but also how she would be recognised in modern day: a character of her personality would be hailed as an activist and a hero for all suffering women in today’s world, however in her time she is despised by several men.
The author also realises a critical attribute of Shakespeare’s depiction of Desdemona. Mandokhail notices that, although Desdemona herself is strong in her dialogue, that her relationships and her interactions with male characters highlights her inferiority, saying in reference to the societal mistreatment of women: ‘She thinks only man has the ability to solve the crisis.’ The conclusion outlines that ‘Despite the fact that Desdemona was strong, independent and intellectual, her position as a woman made her vulnerable’. ‘Desdemona suffered a tragic end because she was a woman.’
Although of a similar title, ‘The Role of Women in Othello: A Feminist Reading’, from literary-articles.com provides a stark comparison in viewpoint: that Desdemona was weak and susceptible to the overbearing misogyny of men. The first thing pointed out in the paper is the severe lack of women in Shakespeare’s plays in general. In Othello, there are just three female characters: Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca. This is exposed, and outlines the tone of the paper: defensive of the lack of presence of women in the play. This article also makes many otherwise unlikely comparisons to characters. Othello, who might be seen as gullible and foolish but still with best wishes at heart, as a demon who uses his wife as a tool. As for Iago, he is taken as much more of a sexist and misogynistic antagonist than as a manipulative and racist, as the paper states ‘The women are merely objects to be used in order to further his own desires.’
Women are seen as submissive and accepting of their inferiority. Importantly, it is said that ‘The women of Othello, however, are pre-Feminism, and seem to only compound the ideological expercations of what it is to be a woman through their own behaviour.’ In other words, the women in the play, and of eras preceding, have never seen equality with their own eyes, so they have no perception of what an equitable society will be like. More scenarios of the objectification of women are discussed in depth, such as the ownership of Desdemona transferring from Brabantio to Othello.
Another crucial point noticed is Desdemona’s status as a sex toy. The author of the paper notices of the male characters’ making of the female characters as sexual objects, but also the hatred of such a characteristic by the men. and the irony in such. It states that ‘Male society, in addition to constructing women as second-rate citizens also constructs their sexual allure as evil.’ This means that although the over-sexualisation of women is the fault of the lustfulness of men in the first place, they depict this artificially constructed trait as villainous and corrupt.
This text has a concluding statement in utter contradiction to my hypothesis, saying: ‘The language that Shakespeare gives to his female characters suggests that they have internalised society’s expectations of them, and apart form in moments of private conversation, behave as men expect, believing this to be “natural”’. The author believes that Desdemona and other female characters in the play were instead illustrated to be pawns in the political game of the men in Cyprus, and were scapegoats to unleash their blame and their flaws of masculinity on.
Leigh Gilmore, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College takes a modern viewpoint on this historical play. The title of her article on wbur.org, the website for a radio station in Boston, is ‘Amid A Reckoning With Toxic Masculinity, Seeing ‘Othello’ In A New Light’. Gilmore asks the question: ‘Why is Desdemona relegated to a plot device?’. Despite all the positive and strong characteristics shown by Desdemona, they are apparently easy to overlook. Is Desdemona depicted as irrelevant in the play as a character? Gilmore goes in depth about the normalisation of misogyny and it’s overwhelming position in society.
Furthermore, the recently established #MeToo movement is referenced, and modernises the historical mistreatment of women. Gilmore uses this #MeToo perspective to find a new angle on the play: ‘To empathise with Desdemona and centre her betrayal, entrapment and murer as a tragedy worth of our greatest attention.’ In other words, Gilmore establishes a third person attitude of female mistreatment: the tragedy of Desdemona and the maltreatment that was caused to her by the male characters in the play was not only wrong in itself, but also went unnoticed by previous scholars, who focussed on other issues such as racism and manipulation. The third to last paragraph of the article begins with the sentence, ‘In the end, Othello does not believe Desdemona’. And Gilmore is right. Despite all of Desdemona’s hard work and her courageous attitude to a male dominated and patriarchal society, in the end, it was futile. The article really takes an audience member mindset to the play, and describes many techniques and visual attributes shown in the play.
...(download the rest of the essay above)