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Male Attitudes towards Women in Othello

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Shakespeare as well as other renowned writers during the Elizabethan time profusely explore the theme of controlling natures of men towards women in their works to highlight the strict patriarchal values of Jacobean society. Desdemona’s subservience acts as a signifier of the control men had over women.

The concept of men controlling women can be seen and encouraged through women’s internalised societal expectations during the Elizabethan Era wherein their sole duty was to serve as a dutiful wife. Desdemona says her “ heart [has been] subdued… [to her] Lord”. The phrase used here, ‘subdued’ suggests she is not in control and rather is controlled by her husband who is notably referred to as her ‘Lord’. She addresses him as ‘Lord’ to display the upmost respect to him, almost as if she worships him, representing Othello ultimate control. The phrase ‘subdued’ also has associations with war, with Othello being a military officer, in this sense the Turks are almost ‘subdued’. The abrupt political and geographical shift portrayed after the kiss scene shows the impact public display of affection Shakespeare attempts to communicate. The Turk defeat additionally implies Othello's military authority, the wellspring of his masculinity, is no longer required which ultimately leads to his own defeat during the denouement of the play. This ruin is foreshadowed when Othello says, “ that not another comfort like this/succeeds in unknown fate”, which denotes a dull tone and communicates the possibility that perhaps the future will not take a dark turn from the present. Desdemona, contrastingly exclaims, “ out loves and comforts should increase,/even as our days do grow”. The contradicting opinion of the two characters suggest the idea of control and programming Desdemona is encountering, forcing her neglect Othello’s unpopular point of view out of choice. Specifically, the words 'should increase' utilized by Desdemona reinforces this feeling of dependability and assurance due to the control she is accustomed to. It very well may be contended that Othello communicates his sentiments about 'unknown fate' to achieve a sense of consolation from Desdemona; a procedure shrewdly used to inspect the control he has over her.

As the extract is from an early stage in the tragic arc, this enables the audience to compare the seemingly perfect but deteriorating relationship of Desdemona and Othello. The shift in Othello 'kissing' his better half can be compared to act 4 where he becomes enraged to find Desdemona denying his accusation, “ double damned: Swear thou art honest”. Shakespeare uses the alliteration of “double damned” to convey aspects of religion to alienate and control Desdemona. He takes the concept of punishment into his own hands in a society where adultery is seen as an act that transgresses Gods commandments. However, in other points of view such as Emilia and Cassio, Desdemona is presented as an extraordinary character that is far from male control. We can interpret through Cassio’s dialogue that he believes Othello has “ achiev’d a maid/ That paragons description” and Desdemona “excels the quirks of blazoning pens”. Cassio can be compared to Othello in the sense that he acknowledges Desdemona’s individuality presenting the idea that not all males control women in love literature. Her status is further emphasised by the context in which the play was written where women were considered lower class citizens. Shakespeare uses Cassio, in his moderately elite status to praise a woman and language to additionally demonstrate this. He uses words related with excellence and likewise terms to portray this for example, Desdemona is not simply just attractive, she ‘paragons’ and “excels” his expectations. Nevertheless, it can be argued Cassio’s saying that Othello ‘achiev’d a maid’ limits Desdemona in her role, indicating that she is only valued for her duties. These duties are forced upon to her despite her ‘paragons’ and ‘excels’ in Othello’s bid to control her. Desdemona being depicted as nothing more than a wife is made noticeably clear by Cassio’s ‘achiev’d a maid’, essentially women were nothing more than just a wife. For a modern audience, attitudes like such shape an understanding that women portrayed in Othello as well as those during the 17th century were considered second class citizens. Shakespeare presents these ideas as an accurate representation of the realities of Jacobean society. The context of the play essentially reinforces the idea that men control women by allowing them to do in a backwards Elizabethan society.

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Notwithstanding, it may be argued that Shakespeare sabotages the typical portrayal of patriarchal relationships but rather presents equal relationships in its place. This can be seen through the contemporary audiences’ point of view who may perhaps envision Desdemona to be submissive though this can be contrasted to her being put in a similar situation as her significant other toward the start of the extract. The phrases “ My dear Othello” and “O my fair warrior” are employed by Shakespeare to show both characters have a mutual love for one another, rather than it being one sided like modern audiences would assume. The shared lines between both characters particularly reflect their harmony as prominent contemporary analysis in the Willow Scene and traditional point of view imply that women are not always subservient to husbands, supporting the idea that perhaps Othello and Desdemona nurture a healthy and equal relationship. The possessive pronoun and monosyllabic “O” however suggest a form of ownership, presenting a conflicting perspective. Nevertheless, the two characters address each other using complimentary expressions to admire one another, demonstrating they have maintained a loving relationship, control clearly not being an issue.

Iago is argued to be a key character Shakespeare uses to exert dominance and control over women as well as men. Iago interrupts the harmony between Othello and Desdemona through his aside, a verse form used by Shakespeare to mirror the true feelings of characters. Essentially Iago notices that Othello is ' well tuned', though he will 'set down the pegs'. Shakespeare uses the remark of “well tuned” as a metaphor of harmonic music which presents the harmony of Othello and Desdemona’s marriage. Shakespeare, again uses an extended musical metaphor “discord .. tun’d .. pegs ..” to convey that Iago will disrupt the ‘harmony’ of the couple by causing dissent. However, the comment is then followed by Iago’s vow “to set down the pegs” which portray his purpose to control and interrupt the harmony between Othello and Desdemona. Iago is also said to use women against men in his ploy to control them. He uses his prejudices against women to his advantage, by manipulating Othello which can be foreshadowed in the extract when he cynically interprets Desdemona and Cassio’s body language as evidence for adultery. Within his soliloquy, a dramatic device used to express the ‘reality,’ of Cassio taking Desdemona’s hand, to spin an illusion that they are both having an affair. Actions as such present Iago as, ‘advocatus diaboli’, where phrases are used judiciously against Othello in a ploy to control and corrupt his mind from controlling to being controlled. The way in which Shakespeare presents Iago as controlling and manipulative rather than ‘honest’ is by skilfully using a break in rhythm, from poetry to prose and prose to poetry to communicate a change in mood with Iago switching from the playful tone of rhythm couplets in colloquy to serious prose in the aside. Effectively, the prose allows Iago to adopt his persuasive and repetitive imagery to control Roderigo’s perception of Desdemona. Roderigo’s extended silence, lack of speech and overall sentence structure of the conversation implies that he is being controlled by Iago as he intended. For example, the repeated imperatives of, “Come hither”, “Lay thy finger thus” and “let thy soul be instructed” are effective instructions used to portray Iago’s controlling nature which Roderigo accepts. This is further emphasised as Iago uses a circular dialogue structure by dismissing the conversation as he had started it, “watch you tonight for the command”. The use of the possessive phrase “command” here conveys that Iago is someone to be obeyed. His overall speech underpins his control over Roderigo, emphasising that men control men as well as women in literature of love

The concept of men controlling women has always been a central feature in literary narrative from the beginning of creative writing. Shakespeare utilises this theme within a range of his works; in particular, Othello wherein many if not all male characters exercise their control over their female counterparts. While it can be reasoned by critics that females are unconventional in this play in the sense that Desdemona is equal to Othello and Emilia holds negative attitudes towards men; however ultimately, they are both controlled by their male counterparts.

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Male Attitudes towards Women in Othello. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from
“Male Attitudes towards Women in Othello.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
Male Attitudes towards Women in Othello. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Feb. 2024].
Male Attitudes towards Women in Othello [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 09 [cited 2024 Feb 29]. Available from:
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