Shakespeare’s Othello revolves its two central characters: Othello, a general in the Venetian army and a husband to Desdemona, and his treacherous friend, Iago. In Othello, the role of women is a prevalent theme that gets presented in a negative approach. Othello demonstrates different modes of containment are portrayed through restrictions on acts of violence and used to isolate women. The characters of Desdemona and Emilia demonstrate the treatment of what women had to go through in that time period.
The role of a women’s agency and solidarity is mediated by a social order of power and kinship. Women during this time are considered possession to a man and should always obey their husband, father, a man in their life. In the life of a woman, they should never disrespect her husband and never suggest he is wrong about something. Throughout the play, Desdemona has no choice but to play the role of an obedient wife and must keep her thoughts to herself.
Two specific scenes from Othello that displays the negative acts upon women is when Othello slaps his wife Desdemona in the face and also when Emilia takes a stand and speaks her mind about the gender inequalities during this time. Also, the time that this play is situated is when relationships had to sustain in an era of racism and sexism.
In Act four scene one from Othello, Othello displays his anger towards Desdemona in a violent way. This is seen as a powerful moment when many things are happening and out of nowhere Othello, in full rage slaps Desdemona. During this time, Othello is implementing accuses of what Iago has told him of what Desdemona has been doing behind his back. The backstory is that Iago develops a plan so it would make Desdemona seem like she was sleeping with other men which make Othello break up with her so Iago can take her as wife. In quote from the play, “OTHELLO / (striking her) Devil! /DESDEMONA /I have not deserved this. /LODOVICO / My lord, this would not be believed in Venice, /Though I should swear I saw’t. ‘Tis very much. / Make her amends, she weeps. /OTHELLO /Oh, devil, devil! /If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears, / Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile. / Out of my sight! / DESDEMONA/ I will not stay to offend you.” (4.1.188-196). This scene highlights the theme because it displays Desdemona begging for forgiveness, on her knees, and trying to explain herself even though the audience knows that she is innocent. This specific scene displays how the treatment of women is portrayed in the Shakespearian time. Women were considered the weaker sex and fragile creatures that need protection.
Concerning the scene before, another scene that follows the same example is in the first Act of the play when Brabantio complains to the Duke of Venice that Othello has stolen and “drugged” his daughter. The state of Venice supports Othello’s case and the duke grants permission for Desdemona so she can go to Cyprus for the military operation that they have planned there. Before they leave for Cyprus, Othello speaks to Iago and tells and informs the Duke that he will let his wife go with Iago’s protection with the quote, “To his conveyance I will assign my wife.” (1.3.280). This specific quote from Othello does not seem to be an important feature in the play but when looked and researched deeper, the audience starts to understand what it means that Othello is making it seem like Desdemona is possession to him. This implies that Desdemona is a possession and needs to be guarded and transported safely. This can also reflect on Desdemona’s life as before she became wife, she was a daughter of the Duke of Venice and under his control, and now she is wife, under Othello’s control. These terms of control were normal and accepted in the time of Shakespeare. Women were considered as the weaker sex and need protection when they get out of the house, and this protection would be achieved in a family or achieved through marriage. The expectation that was brought up in this time, women did not have much say in this standard of living. A woman expected to obey their husbands, and husbands and utilize them at will.
Another scene that portrays this treatment and view on women is when in Act four scene three, Emilia speaks up and speaks her mind. She voices to the audience that the unfair rules are applied to women but not to men. She explains that there is unbalanced equality that women fall on the lower side of the balanced area. Emilia expresses the problems that do not allow women to have as in contrary, men are seen as the hierarchical figure in the relationship. As Emilia explains, “Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace, / Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell/ And have their palates both for sweet and sour, / As husbands have.” (4.3.89-93). Emilia’s quote explains how the difference of sexes were looked down on. Men at that time had many things that women did not have, such as power, free expression and control. To men, women are possession and do not have power or control in the relationship. Emilia tells the audience the problems that women are facing and that she does not like the norms of society. She freely expresses herself as explains the difficulties women face during this time and how she finds that the society and norms of women should change. She understands firsthand about the treatment of women. She sees how Othello treats Desdemona throughout the play, but also herself in under an abusive relationship. Iago uses Emilia to get closer to Desdemona, especially in the scene when he takes the handkerchief from her.
The theme of women in Othello can be demonstrated by the different acts of civilization in that time, such as the treatment, abuse and protection of women by the male’s roles in their life. Shakespeare displays women as victims of society who are suppressed to follow society and not complain to the norms of the perfect women is that time period. They are to follow and obey these norms and have to suffer through the fate of this system, for which they are considered as the weaker and less ranked sex.
As these scenes in the play display, the way women were seen and treated indicates women had little said in relationships and their lives. Desdemona and Emilia are characters that represent the difficulties women had to face and still to this face these challenges and are always under a hierarchy. The play Othello is a keen example that portrays the theme of women and challenges they faced during this time of hierarchy.