The Role of Women in Othello: A Feminist Reading
There are only three women in ‘Othello’: Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca. The way that these women behave and conduct themselves is undeniably linked to the ideological expectations of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan society and to the patriarchal Venetian society that he creates. These notes will explore some of the ways in which the female characters are presented in the play. Women as possessions
Following his hearing of Brabantio’s complaint and Othello’s defence, the Duke eventually grants permission for Desdemona to accompany Othello to Cyprus. Othello speaks to his ensign Iago, ironically describing him as a man of ‘honesty and trust’, informing the Duke that ‘To his conveyance I assign my wife’ (I.3.283). Desdemona, as Othello’s wife, is treated as his possession: he implies that she is a commodity to be guarded and transported. This is, however, by no means peculiar to Othello: the first Senator, wishing Othello well, concludes by hoping that he will ‘use Desdemona well’ (I.3.288). The word ‘use’ seems to connote the phrase ‘look after’, but also supports the Venetian expectation of women - that they are to bow to the wills of their husbands who may utilise them as they wish. Moreover, the function of women within marriage is also delineated by Othello’s ‘loving’ words to Desdemona in Act II: ‘Come, my dear love,/The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue’ (II.3.8-9). Marriage is described as an act of ‘purchase’: a woman is bought by her husband, effectively as a favour, and is expected to fulfil his sexual desires in return for the privilege.
Iago’s desire for revenge on Othello is, in part, dictated by his view of women as possessions. He believes that ‘it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets/He’s done my office’ (I.3.381-2), suggesting that Othello has slept with his wife Emilia. It could be argued, however, that Iago exhibits little love for his wife, insulting her in public and ultimately killing her himself. It is simply the thought that ‘the lusty Moor/hath leaped into my seat’ (II.1.286-7) which drives him mad, the thought that Othello has used a possession that belongs to him. Compounding this theory is the fact that Iago refers to his wife metaphorically in these two instances: she is his ‘office’ and his ‘seat’; she is objectified and deprived of her humanity.
Moreover, in revenge for Othello’s supposed act, Iago wishes to be ’evened with him, wife for wife’ (II.1.290). By sleeping with Desdemona, he believes that they will then be equal. The feelings of Desdemona and Emilia are
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completely disregarded in his plotting. The women are merely objects to be used in order to further his own desires. Although Iago is an extreme example, he nonetheless demonstrates, through his thinking, the fact that women, in both Elizabethan and Venetian society, are perceived as possessions, secondary to the lofty plans and desires of men. Women as submissive
Some modern feminist critics see Desdemona as a hideous embodiment of the downtrodden woman. Whether this is actually the case will be explored later in these notes. Suffice it to say, there is a large body of evidence to support this critical stance. Desdemona herself declares that ‘I am obedient’ (III.3.89), continuing to obey Othello’s orders from the early ‘happy’ phase of their relationship through to the later stages of his jealous ravings. Even when he orders Desdemona to go to her bed towards the end of Act IV, she still replies with the submissive ‘I will, my lord’ (IV.3.9). In her final breath she still remains true to her husband, saying ‘Commend me to my kind lord’ (V.2.125) and providing Othello with an alibi that he does not use. She appears to have completely accepted her role as subordinate and obedient...
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