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The Prominent Role of Women in Shakespeare’s Othello

A comparison of Desdemona and Emilia with modern female qualities

 © 2005 Scott C. Guffey


Shakespeare’s Othello has been studied exhaustively, yet most character analyses focus on the two male figures, Othello and Iago.  The two main female characters, Desdemona and Emilia, are often overlooked and viewed as secondary actors to the jealous Moor and conniving villain.  During the time of Shakespeare, females were often treated and regarded in society as inferior to men.  Presently as a society, we generally feel that we have progressed beyond this archaic attitude and have reached a point where females are treated more equally to males in America.  Women are allowed to vote, are given opportunities for careers that were previously reserved for men, and are allowed a greater expression of their identity and sexuality.  However, women cannot truly regard themselves as equal to males in our society because of all of the disparities.  There seems little chance of voting for a female candidate for President, women’s salaries across the country are comparatively lower than men’s salaries, and sexual harassment, physical abuse of women, and rape are still prevalent in American society.

Shakespeare may have been precognizant in shaping the characters of Desdemona and Emilia for Othello.   Both characters display some tendencies that resemble present day female attributes closer than attributes of the women of the Renaissance era.  The reader of Othello would never outwardly suspect that the female characters are modern models while perusing the text, meaning Desdemona and Emilia are not so out of character that they differ greatly from what we know and understand of women’s roles in the past.  It might be that little has changed in our treatment of females in society today compared to their treatment back in Shakespeare’s day.  We know that Shakespeare tried to create characters that resembled real-life individuals and reflected lifestyles and personalities accurately.  “…Shakespearean dramas are structured in a very specific way that mirrors patterns observed in real human interactions”  (Stiller 404).

The two females are representative of women in early modern literature and we can assume that they would not have been the exact same characters if the story of Othello took place in a modern setting.  A case can be made, however, that Desdemona and Emilia are similar to females of the modern era and that there would be little difference in their actions if indeed the story was told using modern renditions of female characters.  Shakespeare managed to simultaneously give an accurate portrayal of the roles of women in relationships during his period and those of our period, despite the progression that females have enjoyed in this modern era.

Shakespeare might have been able to deduce how the future of female roles in relationships would progress or we might conclude that progression of their roles has moved more slowly than we might believe.  The question of which is definitively true cannot be thoroughly answered, but we can make some assumptions based on a look at the two characters as they relate to modern female characteristics.  We can deduce that the actions and decisions of the two female characters in Othello are integral to the events of the plot, perhaps moreso than the two male characters of Othello and Iago.  We can also conclude that the characters of Desdemona and Emilia are highly believable and realistic.  There can be little doubt of the fallibility of their characters as it relates to the events of the plot, even though the story concludes with their death.

Some scholars have called into question the believability of these deaths, specifically how Othello could be so easily persuaded to turn against the woman he loved, Desdemona.  Focus on the verbal abilities and plotting of Iago is utilized in most scholarly studies to explain the sudden change of attitude in Othello.  Besides the obvious supposition that a man of such deviousness who is actively trying to destroy another should be the focus of Othello’s mood swing, we might assume the character of Iago is simply most interesting to those involved in scholarly studies.  Since Iago is so fascinating of a character, it might be easy to dismiss the role that Desdemona took in her own demise.

Desdemona is primarily considered an innocent victim of her fate.  Upon the initial consideration of her character, we can assume that she herself did not want to die at the hands of her beloved husband.  She was loving and devoted to Othello and envisioned a long marriage of prosperity and dedication that would lead to her ultimate happiness.  She had achieved what is supposedly the epitome of a woman’s role – she had found a husband who she could love with all her being.  She reflected that through her actions and dialogue.  She could not have possibly believed that anything that she did or said would have caused her loving husband to turn on her so viciously.  If responsibility has to be assigned to an individual, surely she should be absolved since one could not fathom that she would intentionally initiate any course that would lead to her death and the end of her relationship with Othello. 

It is wrong to assign intentional blame for the results at the end of Othello on any character other than Iago.  Iago wished for Othello to become a jealous monster and destroy himself and his marriage through Iago’s nefarious machinations.  However, some fault must be given to Othello for failing to see through the veil of lies that Iago presented him and also for not trusting his wife’s love.  And just as Othello is culpable for his actions, Desdemona is responsible because her character was so entirely devoted to her husband’s love.  “Desdemona performs no such acts of defiance, but her erotic submission, conjoined with Iago’s murderous cunning, far more effectively, if unintentionally, subverts her husband’s carefully fashioned identity”  (Greenblatt 48).  Desdemona acted as an enabler in her marriage with Othello and allowed her death at Othello’s hands to happen.

How exactly does one enable their spouse or significant other to kill oneself?  It happens quite frequently.  Many women today are involved in relationships where they are abused.  They are battered and beaten and struck.  Oftentimes, if the beatings become prolonged, a male in a relationship often ends up killing the female.  The women in these relationships do not want to be abused.  We know that women in abusive relationships tend to allow the actions of their spouse.  They enable the men to continue their abusive practices by making excuses for their actions, not reporting the abuse to authorities, and often forgiving them for their violent bullying.

There are differences between a typical abuse case and the case of Desdemona and Othello.  Desdemona was not repeatedly abused.  Not all abuse is prolonged, however.  Many times, an attack on a woman in a relationship can happen unexpectedly.  After long periods of holding hatred and contempt within, a man will assault his wife “out of the blue,” catching the woman off-guard and completely by surprise.  There are occurrences of men deciding to take their own lives and making a “patriarchal” decision to destroy his lover (and family) right along with him.

Othello obviously caught Desdemona by surprise at the end and did kill himself with her.  The complete turnaround of Othello indicated the powerful influence jealousy had over him.  The jealousy was instilled by Iago, but strengthened by Desdemona.  Desdemona enabled Othello’s rage and jealousy to grow so quickly by immersing herself so completely in her love for Othello.  “There is rather a quality in that love itself that unsettles the orthodox schema of hierarchical obedience and makes Othello perceive her submission to his discourse as a devouring of it”  (Greenblatt 45).

Othello had a perception of Desdemona that was altered by the machinations of Iago.  Desdemona contributed to that perception by fulfilling a role that she thought was ideal for Othello.  She wanted to be Othello’s perfect woman, so she portrayed herself as pure and virginal to her husband.  She was not guilty of wrong-doing in her portrayal since she WAS pure and virginal.  Her excessive efforts to remain pure and virginal in Othello’s eyes caused her to appear the exact opposite of how she wanted to be regarded by him.  Rather than see her as the pure wholesome Madonna wife, he shifted easily to a crooked deceitful whore-like view of his wife.  “Women (are) faced with a Madonna-whore dichotomy:  They (are) either pure and virginal or promiscuous and easy”  (Crawford 13).

Men contribute to the fallacy that women should be one or the other.  Men have a tendency to want both versions of the dichotomy sexually, but they want them for different roles.  Men desire their wives to be pure, but their lovers to be promiscuous.  “In this construction women are defined in terms of two extremes: either sexually pure (the virgin or Madonna) or sexually impure (the whore).  These oppositional constructions are used to police women’s adherence to traditional femininity (sexually pure and passive)”  (Boonzaier 458).  Othello could only perceive Desdemona as one or the other.  As his wife, he desired purity of her.  When that purity was questioned, he quickly concluded that there was nothing left for her to be but sexually impure.

Desdemona did notice the shift in Othello’s feelings for her and thought the best way to combat Othello’s anger was to be more devoted and loving to him.  Her idea was to smooth over the conflict between Othello and Michael Cassio.  Her methodology was flawed in that she wanted to do so through communication with Cassio moreso than her husband, but her intention in doing so was to show her husband that she was infinitely pure and devoted to him.  In her mind, there was no appearance of impropriety in her actions with Cassio.  She did not even suspect there should be.  She was so involved with the practice of being pure and virginal for her husband, that she could not even fathom that she could appear as anything but pure and virginal to Othello.

Interestingly, we have no knowledge of Othello’s previous sexual history or desires.  Usually in cases where a man suspects his wife of unfaithfulness, he himself has engaged in extracurricular sexual practices.  In a study of abusive relationships conducted by Boonzaier and de la Rey, they found that every one of the men who abused their wives cheated on them at one point or another.  “It is notable that all of the men who were extremely jealous or questioned their partners’ motives and movements, were at one time or another unfaithful to them”  (Boonzaier 458).  Othello never gave an indication in the story that he desired anyone other than Desdemona, but we might assume that Othello doubted his own devotion and would have tired of Desdemona’s adherence to the pure, devoted persona that she used with Othello.

Othello, portrayed as noble and wise, was more of a typical practitioner of the effects of the Madonna-whore dichotomy.  To Othello, a woman, especially his wife, can only be perceived by one of two ways.  Either his wife was the pure, noble woman he loved or she was the malicious whore that slept with Michael Cassio, and possibly many men before him.  There is no halfway model for Desdemona to fill.  She is either his ultimate good or his ultimate evil.  Like many close-minded males, he dealt with the “evil” in ultimate fashion – violently.

Desdemona, rather than allow herself to be so fully immersed in the virginal role, could have maintained the role that had appealed to Othello in the first place.  Before the two eloped, Desdemona portrayed herself to Othello as more of his peer.  She wished to hear his stories, she wanted to be present during his adventures, and they conversed about all manners of their lives.  The most interesting aspect of her relationship with Othello prior to their marriage was the fact that she deceived her father in order to be with Othello.  This practice of deception simultaneously established an impure aspect of her personality while solidifying her devotion to Othello.  This small impurity of Desdemona may have planted the seed in Othello that germinated into the raging beast of jealousy that he became.  Desdemona’s first selfless act of lying to her father for Othello’s love may have been the initial instigator of the jealousy that Iago supplemented.

There was a shift in personality in Desdemona from the character that Othello thought he married to the character that she became after they were wed.  Before their marriage, Desdemona was a strong-willed explorative equal to Othello.  She conversed and related to him as a peer.  Her ideas and abilities appealed to him and he regarded her as person capable of creative thought and personal aptitude. After their marriage, she actively tried to become a woman that she thought he would want more – the pure, virginal model.  When they were wed, she became less of a person and more of an object to engage in sex with and procreate.  “…Motherhood is dangerous because it affirms a situation in which females must be only women and mothers; it denies the possibility of women developing personal creativity and creating a world that would be open and free for them”  (Allen 315).  Because she altered herself, it became easier for Othello to believe that she was capable of being the polar opposite – the trashy, whore model.  If she had maintained the role of equal to Othello, she would not have fit so easily into either pole of the dichotomy.

Thus Desdemona does fit well into the role of a modern woman caught in an abusive relationship.  Most women in these relationships change in order to accommodate the role that they believe their husbands or significant others want them to become; most of the time, the role they believe their husbands want them to play is that of a pure, demure, virginal housewife.  “Feminity has traditionally been constructed as nurturing, caring, and selfless.  Women are seen as the providers of love and care, often putting their partners’ needs before their own”  (Boonzaier 454).  Simply because women try so hard to be the envisioned ideal, their husbands see them more easily slipping into the role of the opposite – the unfaithful whore.  The original template that the woman was and the man first fell in love with becomes obscured and ofttimes disappears completely.  The woman enables the man’s violence by becoming something that she believes the man wants her to be.

Desdemona resembles the archetype for this form of modern woman.  Instead of changing to accommodate what she perceived her husband to want, she could have maintained the equal status she had achieved beforehand. Her equality with a male was only shared briefly with her husband, and he quickly forsook that.  Instead of actively pursuing a resolution to the conflict between Othello and Cassio by discussing the matter with Cassio without Othello’s knowledge, she could have established a conversation with Othello himself.  She could have discussed with him his reasons for dismissing Cassio rather than assuming that Othello was in error for doing so.  Desdemona lost the ear of Othello when Iago nosed his own voice into it.  If she had maintained her communication and relationship with her husband, Othello’s jealousy might never have superseded his love for her and the tragic ending might not have taken place.

Desdemona is not entirely compatible with the modern woman.  It is interesting to note that modern film renditions of Othello usually attempt to give Desdemona a more feminist tone (one more synonymous with Emilia, as we will see).  Desdemona is often portrayed as indignant and often threatens to leave Othello because of his outbursts.  Martin Wine believes that few actresses are able to portray Desdemona correctly.  “Few actresses are able to balance child-like innocence and mature womanhood in a rounded characterisation; too often they seem either childish or so worldly intelligent that it is inconceivable that they would land themselves in this mess”  (103).  In Shakespeare’s story, Desdemona never wavers in her devotion to Othello. Until the very end, she seemed to value her relationship with her husband equally to the value of her life.  Her strong character is overshadowed by one of naivety and ignorance up until the point where she realizes Othello’s deadly intentions.  Only then does her strong character return:

 

Des.  If you say so, I hope you will not kill me/ (Oth.  Humh!)/ And yet I fear you; for you are fatal then/ When your eyes roll so.  Why I should fear I know not,/ Since guiltiness I know not; but yet I feel I fear  (V. ii. 40-44).

 

Des.  That death’s unnatural that kills for loving./ Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?/ Some bloody passion shakes your very frame./ These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope,/ They do not point on me  (V. ii. 48-52).

 

Is Desdemona simply the wronged female in this story or she actually the heroine?  Othello is the protagonist, but he is not the idealized romantic hero.  Throughout the story, he matches the characteristics of the chivalric hero of medieval literature.  Once he succumbs to the spell of jealous rage, though, he falls out of the role of hero and into that of witless dupe.  “His change from a chivalric knight to a cuckolded husband armed only with the power of his position corresponds to the change in his regard for Desdemona, with the implication…that injustice implements hate”  (Hays 186). The role of hero slides over to Desdemona, who maintained the idealistic tendencies of love and devotion that are necessary to the romantic hero.  Her death at the hands of the beast is noble and symbolic.  Her rage at the betrayal of her husband is vindictive and merited.  The grief the reader experiences at the conclusion is for Desdemona, not Othello.  Desdemona is the vital character of Othello.  Shakespeare could not have created such a tragic outcome without a character as well-formed as Desdemona.  Othello and Iago were tools used to fashion a door, but Desdemona was the key.

Similarly, Emilia is essential to the events of the play.  Her role is important because she provides a female character that contrasts sharply with the character of Desdemona.  The expectations of Emilia as wife to Iago differ greatly from those of Desdemona to Othello.  Whereas Desdemona is immersed with her love of Othello to the point where she loses her own identity, Emilia is able to maintain a strong, self-aware persona in which Iago is not necessary to her identity.  Emilia is a stronger female character and resembles the modern female character in American society through her actions and desires.

 

Des.  I have heard it said so.  O, these men, these men!/ Dost thou in conscience think – tell me, Emilia – / That there be women do abuse their husbands/ In such gross kind?/ Emil. There be some such, no question./ Des.  Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?/  Emil. Why, would not you?/  Des. No, by this heavenly light./  Emil. Nor I neither by this heavenly light./ I might do’t as well i’ the dark  (IV. iii. 71-80).

 

Emil.  In troth, I think I should; and undo’t when I/ had done it.  Marry, I would not do such a thing for a/ joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats,/ nor caps, nor any petty exhibition; but, for all the/ whole world – Ud’s pity! Who would not make her husband/ a cuckold to make him a monarch?  I should venture/ purgatory for’t  (IV. iii. 85-91).

 

Emilia has revealed to Desdemona in this passage that she understands an independent woman’s desires.  She has told Desdemona that she could understand the motivation of a woman to be apart from her husband’s desires and form her own wants.  Emilia understands why a woman might want someone other than her husband.  In doing so, she has challenged Desdemona’s contention that a woman must be pure and devoted only to one man.  Desdemona does not understand how a woman could actively engage in the “whore” persona.  Emilia herself does not align herself with the “whore,” but admits that she can visualize a scenario where a woman might be justified in serving herself rather than devoting her entire being into the needs and pleasures of one man.  Emilia is more open-minded and holds many similarities to the feminist ideals of a modern woman.  “(Emilia) …sympathizes with female promiscuity.  She corrects Desdemona’s occasional naiveté but defends her chastity.  Although she comprehends male jealousy and espouses sexual equality, she seems remarkably free from jealousy herself.  She wittily sees cuckoldry and marital affection as compatible.  She understands, but tolerates, male fancy…”  (Neely  87).

Desdemona is aghast at the idea that Emilia has presented to her, but it appears at this point in the story that Desdemona might begin questioning herself.  She realizes that it is possible for a woman to make a cuckold of her husband.  She understands that a man could be easily persuaded to believe that a woman might have her own wants and desires. She realizes that the path she has taken in her marriage, that of blindly devoted wife, might contribute to confusion and error to her husband.  She begins to believe that Othello might believe that she is unfaithful to him.

It is important for Emilia to be worldlier in the knowledge of relationships as a friend to Desdemona so that her eyes can be opened before the final confrontation with her husband.  Emilia’s feminist perspective allows Desdemona’s character to be aware of the Madonna-whore dichotomy that she has firmly rooted herself within.  If Emilia had not spoken with Desdemona about her views, Desdemona would seem entirely ignorant of the plight she was in and would not entirely fill the qualifications for the heroine she was meant to be.  Shakespeare created a character in Emilia that acts both as a utilitarian foil for Desdemona and a precursor to the modern feminist ideal.  Simply because she admitted she was aware of the thoughts of an independent woman, Emilia was more attuned to the median between the Madonna-whore dichotomy whereas Desdemona found herself at either extreme.

Although Emilia is unaware of her husband’s plot to destroy Othello and Desdemona, her actions further contribute to the awful events at the end.  Interestingly, her motivations for doing so continue a modernist theme.  If Emilia had not taken Desdemona’s handkerchief, Iago would not have been able to utilize it as the coup-de-grace of his evil plan.  Simply because she took the handkerchief, it appeared that Emilia might have been complicit in her husband’s plot.  “How guilty is Emilia of acting as a passive accomplice in Iago’s plot?  The question arises when Desdemona asks ‘Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?’ and she lies, ‘I know not, madam.’  Just four words, yet momentous in their implications”  (Honigmann 110). Emilia was not aware of Iago’s plan, however, as her surprise and disgust at the end revealed, so it is not readily acceptable to believe that Emilia was Iago’s willing accomplice.  When Iago relieved her of the object, she supposed that he was making a copy of the cloth for herself. 

Emilia’s entire attitude toward the misplaced article reflects the contemporary stance of materialism that runs rampant throughout American society.  Emilia desired the handerkerchief.  Rather than return the article to Desdemona, who she knew was the rightful owner, she kept it.  When Iago took it, she fabricated the idea that he was merely replacing it with a duplicate for her own amusement.  Emilia did not intend any harm to come to Desdemona, or Othello by extension.  She merely had a materialistic want for some inanimate object that she fancied.  These ideals of materialism run rampant in consumeristic America today.

The modern female character of Emilia was also necessary to reveal her husband’s plot.  She was the only character privy to several of the underlying details of Iago’s scheme.  Rather than withhold the details to herself and protect her husband, she maintained her status as an independent person and betrayed her husband’s trust because it was what was right to her.  Her moral need to bring her friend’s killer to justice overrode any desire she had to protect her husband from harm.  If Desdemona’s wholly devoted character had been Iago’s paramour, it is conceivable to see where she may have hesitated to reveal the truth merely because she would do anything to maintain the image of the pure, devoted wife.  Emilia held no such compunctions.

Both of these main female characters died at the end of the story by their husband’s hand.  When violent acts occur in literature, scholars always attribute meaning to the actions, usually what motivates the characters to do so.  In reality, violence usually occurs spontaneously without little thought to the act’s meaning.  R.A. Foakes describes a “primal scene of violence” in which “the deed that seems spontaneous and to have no meaning until we build interpretations into it later, for it is violence of this kind, initiated in the murder of Abel by Cain, that especially troubled Shakespeare’s imagination”  (8-9).  We can assume that Shakespeare had a reason for having both of his female characters killed specifically by their husbands.  Their deaths reflect the displeasure that both men had for the roles that the women played in their lives.  Othello hated the thought that his wife could occupy the role of whore even though she strove for the role of Madonna.  If Desdemona were more worldly and occupied the median like Emilia did, then Othello would have no justification for killing her.  Simply because she could reside at the one end of the dichotomy—because she COULD be unfaithful – he felt that murder and violence was the only right answer to his dilemma.  Iago, a man of small moral fiber to begin with, killed Emilia simply because she was not loyal to him.  It is interesting to note that neither woman would have died at the hands of their husbands if they had simply switched roles.

Both Desdemona and Emilia are integral entities that are essential for the story of Othello to have the significance and impact that it has had on Shakespearean studies and literature in general.  Both women have subtle characteristics that can be associated with modern female qualities, but none of them are so out of character with women from the Renaissance period as to believe that the women of Othello could not pass a feasibility test.  Both women did nothing out of character for females of the Shakespearean era.  However, both women could easily exist in a story set in modern times.  The female character in literature and reality is forever changing and improving, yet many aspects of their character remain steadily the same.

 

Works Cited

 

Allen, Jeffner.  “Motherhood: The Annihilation of Women.”  Trebilot.  (1984) :  315.

Boonzaier, Floretta, and Cheryl de la Rey.  “Woman Abuse: The Construction of Gender in Women and Men’s Narratives of Violence.”  South African Journal of Psychology.  34.3 (2004) : 443-463.

Brandt, Galina A.  “Women’s Nature as a Problem.”  Russian Social Science Review.  40.6 (1999) : 73-94.

Crawford, Mary, and Danielle Popp.  “Sexual Double Standards: A Review and Methodological Critique of Two Decades of Research.”  Journal of Sex Research.  40.1 (2003) : 13-26.

Foakes, R. A.  Shakespeare and Violence.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Greenblatt, Stephen.  “The Improvisation of Power.”  Modern Critical Interpretations: Othello.  Ed. Harold Bloom.  New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.  37-59.

Hays, Michael L.  Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance: Rethinking Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.  Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.

Honigmann, E.A.J.  “Is Emilia Iago’s Passive Accomplice?”  Readings on Othello.  Ed. Don Nardo.  San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000.  109-112.

Lester, Julius.  Othello: A Novel.  New York: Scholastic, Inc.  1995.

Neely, Carol Thomas Neely.  “Women and Men in Othello.”  Modern Critical Interpretations: Othello.  Ed. Harold Bloom.  New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.  79-104.

O.  Dir. Tim Blake Nelson.  Perf. Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, and Martin Sheen.  Lion’s Gate Films, 2001.

Othello.  Dir. Geoffrey Sax.  Perf. Eamonn Walker, Christopher Eccleston, and Keeley Hawes.  BBC, 2002.

Shakespeare, William.  The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.  Ed. Louis Wright.  New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1957.

Stiller, James, Daniel Nettle, and Robin I. M. Dunbar.  “The Small World of Shakespeare’s Plays.”  Human Nature.  14.4 (2003) : 397-408.

Wine, Martin L.  “The Ideal Desdemona: Aristocratic Daughter and ‘Fair Warrior.’”  Readings on Othello.  Ed. Don Nardo.  San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000.  102-108.


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