Written in 1603, William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello is based on the story of Un Capitano Moro by a disciple of Boccaccio which was previously first published in 1565. The presentation of women in Shakespeare’s Othello is an issue that cannot be ignored when interpreting the text. Examining how women were treated in Elizabethan Italy, with the three female characters being either virtuous or licentious, three theses can be: Women as angels or whores, Women as possessions, and Women as assertive.
Women as angels or whores
As Gilbert and Gubar state in their essay The Queen’s Looking Glass: Female Creativity, Male Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity, ‘For every glowing portrait of submissive women enshrined in domesticity, there exists an equally important negative image that embodies the sacrilegious fiendishness of what William Blake called the “Female Will.”’. This duality is clearly seen in the presentation of the female characters in Othello. In Elizabethan society, women were expected to live accordingly to the virtues of ‘obedience, chastity, silence and piety’; those who did not were seen as a challenge to the patriarchal society. It can be said that Elizabethan portrayals often reduce women to mothers, saints, or whores and the women in Othello are synonymous with these norms, specifically in that they are either lauded as the perfect depiction of a female – an angel – or the opposite – a whore.
Indeed, the presentation of women as one or the other is a literary trope that permeates all texts, and thus is it no surprise that Emilia, Bianca, and Desdemona fall into these stereotypical categories in the eyes of the men that surround them. Looking firstly Desdemona, the daughter of the Venetian Senator Brabantio is a character who occupies contradictory positions. Desdemona remains resolutely loyal throughout the play, yet is unjustly accused of adultery, and the entire tragedy of the play revolves around Othello’s erroneous belief that Desdemona has been unfaithful. In the exposition Othello, after being warned by Desdemona’s father to be wary of her and how faithful she will be as a wife, declares his trust in his love by the words; ‘My life upon her faith.’ Desdemona’s father held possession of her, but she went against the patriarchal ways to be with Othello. Othello’s declaration of trust is heavily loaded with irony, as after revealing his trust and faith towards his wife he literally gives his life for what he believes is Desdemona’s absence of trust. The audience is able to see that actually what tarnishes Othello’s worthiness of Desdemona is Iago who doubts Othello and causes him to lack faith in Desdemona’s worthiness. This evidently shows how women can be labeled as angels, yet opinions can be changed so drastically. We see this through Othello’s views on Desdemona and how he initially had all confidence and high regard, which soon tarnished ever so quickly in Iago’s tragic and cunning plot.
A character who is able to break the societal confines of passivity for women is spoken of in Act I scene II 24-28 when Iago tells Othello that Brabantio will try to annul Desdemona’s marriage. Othello makes clear Desdemona’s angelic characteristics, and how his love is so strong that he gives up his freedom to be with her:
‘But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea’s worth’
Being the play’s protagonist and an army general he values his freedom and authority highly. However, it is evident that he is infatuated by Desdemona and her qualities that he values her as his priority, above all else. Even the duplicitous character of Iago, who tries to corrupt the angelic image created of Desdemona throughout the play says in Act I scene II 50-51:
‘Faith, he tonight hath boarded a land carack
If it proves a lawful prize, he’s made forever
Although initially, it seems Iago is trying deviance, by saying Othello is in love with Desdemona for her family’s money, it is evident that Iago too can appreciate Desdemona’s beauty, and angelic properties referring her to as a ‘prize.’ This reveals how Desdemona is a character that portrays purity and is the epitome of innocent love. This is ironic, as the whole conflict of the play arises from Iago’s manipulation of her image into the polar opposite. Even after Iago leads Othello to believe Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio, the missing handkerchief a stark symbol of her deceit, Othello oscillates between debasing and exalting his wife, saying in Act 4.1 177-180:
‘Ay, let her rot and perish and be
damned tonight, for she shall not live. No, my
heart is turned to stone. I strike it and it
hurts my hand. Oh, the world hath not a sweeter creature,’
As Othello plots his wife’s murder, he cannot help but revert to his previous appraisal of her as perfect, beautiful, and loving. Othello’s earnest love and trust have been corrupted by Iago’s cunning and calculating plan and he realizes that in his murder he must harden his heart and turn against her. Thus, she must become nothing more than a whore in his eyes. It is not until after her death that Desdemona is seen anew; in the denouement of the play, Othello’s epiphany reverts Desdemona to her previous status, by saying in Act 5.5 347-348 that he, ‘Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away/ Richer than all his tribe.’ The symbolism of the pearl is interesting; Desdemona’s unblemished beauty, purity, and worth are tragically clear to her husband only once it is too late. In the end, the audience feels great sadness not only for the tragedy but as a result of the transformation of Desdemona’s character, from an outspoken to a smothered wife. Initially witty and compelling on stage, once accused of infidelity her arguments are silenced when she needed her voice the most, thus leading to her death. This reveals how women had to abide by the ways of society, and Desdemona was a character who was regarded as both angelic and whore like.
The character of Bianca is more problematic as her characterization is subtler and the audience is left questioning her position within Venetian society. Her interactions center primarily around Cassio in her role as a suspected prostitute. Although loyal and loving to Cassio, she is condemned by society and seen as a whore, with Iago even dehumanizing her as a ‘creature’ and explicitly naming her as a prostitute. Ironically, given her blemished reputation, Bianca is given a name representing purity, white, and innocence, perhaps to show how women were subjected to being either a whore, or an angel. Even the women in society are seen to look down on Bianca, with Emilia calling her a ‘strumpet’, revealing everyone’s suspicions. Bianca denies this accusation and retorts, in Act 5.1 P120-121:
“I am no strumpet but of life as honest
As you that thus abuse me”
Despite her society deeming her an outcast, it must be noted that Bianca defends herself, taking offense at the pejorative term and refusing to allow Emilia to diminish her. She will not allow the accusation of being of a baser nature, or her life one of shame, making her character admirable. Unlike the other female characters, whose roles are largely defined by their connection to their husbands or father, no man has ‘ownership’ of Bianca; society therefore would have suspected her of being untrustworthy, believing that prostitutes had the potential to overpower men and disrupt the norms. It is important to note that Bianca is able to be forceful in her beliefs and who she is, but society holds a different opinion.
Finally, in assessing the ways in which women are categorized as either angels or whores, it is important to consider the role Emilia plays. She can too be described as a loyal wife despite the fact that Emilia is a cynical character who is constantly disrespected and mistreated by Iago. She believes she is innocent but if she was to speak more, she would no doubt be silenced and spoke over by a male figure. However, she is unable to fully go against the standards expected during the era and despite her innocence she holds, is subservient. In Act V Scene II, the falling action, before Iago kills Emilia for revealing him, he says: ‘Villainous Whore’ after Emilia has told the truth about her involvement in the handkerchief scheme and identifies her husband as a guilty man, Emilia, despite being truthful is still deemed as that of a promiscuous woman and disregarded by Iago who she was fully loyal too.
Iago, a character whose incentives and motivations have mystified theatergoers and critics for years, is a character who is undeniably an extreme misogynist. The audience sees him too often label women as ‘whores’; the pejorative appears thirteen times in the text. Historical readings may be able to examine his depiction of females as a product of his era and cultural means, particularly the way women were viewed in Elizabethan times as sexually immoral compounds and how creditable Roderigo and Othello find Iago’s portrayal of Desdemona. Iago’s belief that Desdemona will betray Othello is, in his eyes, a ‘most pregnant and unforced position. His pointed language, referring to female reproduction, reminds us of society’s archetype of the perfect yet paradoxical woman – the virgin mother. Women were both judged and labeled for their actions, very often their sexual actions, while being held to an impossible ideal. Iago preys upon this standard, using it to his own vengeful, callous villainous ends, while many of the characters believe in his misogynist actions. It is significant that he frequently speaks on behalf of other men and against women. Furthermore, he believes ‘‘It is a common thing…To have a foolish wife” in Act III. III P86 305-307, thus revealing his total disregard and disrespect toward Emilia. His inexplicable wrath against females is a representation of how society considered and depicted women at the time.
Women as Possessions
Within Venetian society in the Elizabethan age, the conventional ideology was that women were submissive to men and men had possession over them. Women were deemed to be passive objects, men active subjects, or as stated by Carroll Camden ‘Man is the agent, woman the patient’. At the time, it was a woman’s role to swear her allegiance to her father, and later her spouse. The utmost important activity for a woman was to stay loyal and be obedient to a man. Under English law, women were perceived as legal property that could be possessed, bought, and owned just like any other household item with no power to own land or themselves. It is evident that all three female characters have little say over the men, but the men have an enormous say over the women.
In the exposition, when the audience is introduced to the character of Desdemona her father believes he still holds ownership over her. A male is always in control of her, and her ways are shaped by a man. Brabantio blindly describes his daughter as a maiden never bold,’ and reacts to Desdemona secretly marrying Othello in Act I.II P42 62:
‘O thou foul thief, where hast thou strow’d my daughter?’
Brabantio reveals that he believes his daughter is his property, implying that Othello has stolen something that is in fact his. Desdemona has acted against the norms of patriarchal society through her extra-endogamous marriage and by disregarding her father’s authority. Through her marriage, Desdemona appears to have replaced one possessor with another. After Desdemona is granted permission to accompany Othello overseas in Cyprus, her husband’s words are ‘to [Iago’s] conveyance I assign my wife’ as if she is an object that must be protected and transported by a male figure. This averts any suggestion of Desdemona being a woman able to stand on her own ground and on her own decisions. However, the irony of this Othello and Desdemona’s marriage initially seems equal with both deeply in love. In Act II. In P60 184-188, Othello says:
‘If it were now to die,
‘Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her consent so absolute’
They are a couple who have gone against what the European society deemed as the norm, given their racial differences. Nevertheless, despite this passion, it seems as though Othello views Desdemona in the traditional Venetian way. When leaving to go to bed, Othello speaks to Desdemona in a way that, regardless of outward appearances of devotion, belies a worrying mentality. He says to his wife (Act II.III P64 7-10):
“Come, my dear love,
The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue:
The profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you.”
Othello uses financial language when speaking of his marriage as a purchase, and she as a newfound piece of property. He may hold this ‘object’ with pride, and dignity but it is always prevalent that he owns her and will always have her as a possession. Although it does not seem as if Othello intentionally or explicitly calls her thus, it is clear men have a troubling perception of women. It is important to note the initial power dynamic, with Desdemona being ‘half the wooer’. However, as soon as Othello’s jealousy is aroused, the power balance shifts beyond Desdemona’s control. The passionate partnership crumbles at the first hurdle. Desdemona is a character whose protestations of innocence are ignored by her husband; Othello is a character who shows the audience how women and their reputations can be manipulated and distorted by male characters.
As addressed earlier, the character of Iago is at the heart of misogyny in the play and this may in fact stem from a fear that his own wife has been claimed by another. He says of Othello in Act I.III P54 381-384 in his soliloquy:
‘it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know
Not it is true,
But I for mere suspicion in that kind.’
He is quick to accuse his own wife Emilia of sleeping with Othello, perceiving women as objects that can be traded and swapped between men whenever they please, mere commodities. Iago reveals to the audience his reasons for hating Othello, as well as being overlooked for promotion, he uses these things as his motive for his deviant behavior toward Cassio, Othello, and Desdemona. The words hint toward Iago’s inherently evil nature, and that he is motivation is purely incidental. It is ironic that Iago is able to change Othello into a man who judges on what she hears instead of what he sees just from the rumors Iago heard. The words of Iago show how he and other men of the era portrayed women to be and how content they were in objectifying women. From his wife’s perspective, we see Emilia discussing marriage and men, depicting the harsh reality for women in the Italian Court. She says in Act III.IV P94 101-104:
“Tis not a year or two shows a man.
They are all but stomachs, and we are all but food:
They eat us hungrily, and when they are full
They belch us”
The implication in her words shows her awareness that men thoughtlessly use women to satisfy their sexual desires. She uses ‘belch’, a form of excretion, to reveal how men often find it easy to simply expel women from their lives with little remorse. The euphemism of sex being food, and how men are hungry for their needs with women sexually but can have little repentance nor guilt in so. This is telling, as it conveys to the audience how males perceived women during the era.
In the play, it can be said that the females all portray loyal attitudes towards their husbands and partners. The inflicts the audience to feel sympathetic to the way in which the females are controlled over and treated, despite their allegiance.
Women as assertive
Despite the fact that women in Othello are in many ways defined by their relationships with the male characters, they are, at times, commanding, assertive characters in their own right. In the falling action of the play, Emilia is unable to accept her standing within society. Until this point, she has been portrayed as an obedient wife to Iago, even in the face of her suspicions of his scheming. When Iago’s wicked deeds are revealed, she refuses to be silenced and disregards Iago’s authority over her. She denounces her husband after realizing his villainy, declaring in Act V.II 197-199):
‘Good gentleman let me have leave to speak
Tis proper I obey him, but not now
Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home’
This is a noteworthy act for Emilia; it is evident she is a confident, forceful woman who wants to stand alone as her true self, which lay silenced due to her controlling marriage. Emilia is not just assertive in regard to herself but is insistent that other women do indeed suffer as a result of their husbands. She confesses to Desdemona in Act IV, Sc III “I do think it is their husband’s faults / If wives do fall” Emilais is experienced and knowledgeable about men, she holds a cynical view of human relationships and shows her pessimistic view of marriage and fidelity. It is evident here that, she is not happy in her and Iago’s marriage. Her opinions perhaps can be interpreted as subverting the sexual politics within the era, and they offer fairer and challenges the double standards relating to male and female sexual conduct. Here, according to Emilia if women act against the man or are unfaithful to their husband then it is likely to be due to their actions that have provoked them to act in such a manner. Her character has adapted to become cynical and perceptive due to her relationship with Iago and his callous treatment towards her, but it is refreshing she is able to act assertively against him in the denouement. Tragically, however, Emilia is murdered by Iago, with her final words a scathing denouncement:
‘O murderous coxcomb! What should such a fool
Do with so good a wife?’
Conversely, while Emilia gains strength and assertiveness, Desdemona loses it throughout the course of the action. In the exposition when the audience first meets Desdemona, she is described as ‘half the wooer’ in her courtship with Othello, an unexpected position for a woman in Venetian society. The inequality that threaded through society is highlighted by Brabantio’s disdain of Othello, a Moor, and the marriage between the two seems to be shameful, in the sense that it represents a deviation from the norms of Elizabethan times. However, Desdemona’s willingness to stand against her father and her independence is revealed by her words ‘So much I challenge that I may profess / Due to the Moor my lord’ revealing her ability to act against the expected and be a woman of her own decisions. She speaks to the Duke of the sexual nature of her love for Othello, something that women even now are discouraged to do. This shows the audience the outspoken and independent ways of Desdemona.
Further to this, in the early scenes, Desdemona is witty and tenacious; she stands up to the character of Iago declaring in Act II, ScI 116 ‘O fie upon thee, slandered.’ She directly accuses of him lying with the specific intent to cause harm to Emilia’s reputation. She is bold and astute, traits that universally can be admired. However, her tenacity and loyalty perhaps can be viewed as her downfall; in her determination to defend Cassio to her husband, suspicions are aroused and she begins her trajectory to a silenced wife. When she is accused of adultery, she defends herself simply, saying ‘I have not deserved this.’ She knew she was being wrongly accused and made no effort to prove this as she wasn’t to be an obedient wife that was supportive of her husband no matter what.