The Role of Elizabethan Women in Shakespeare's Othello
Oppression of Elizabethan Women
Women in an Elizabethan society, such as Shakespeare’s, were usually not seen as equal. Women were often seen as lesser people who need to be taken care of by men. This ideology was perpetuated by both men and women of the time by playing into the roles of male and female. According to Wittig quoting Simone de Beauvoir “One is not born, but becomes a woman.” With this quote, she is commenting on the social consequences of being a “woman” in society. Women and men do not just come into being naturally; they are created through ideas spread about to bring about the oppression of women and the advancement of men. These ideas are perpetuated through any sort of media via any means. They can be political, religious, or entertaining, but they still perpetuate the idea of male/female binary opposition. Wittig would argue that these gender roles are created artificially and are not a natural occurrence. They are created through the male/female ideology being spread throughout society and accepted as a natural occurrence. Othello gives a good example of this male female ideology being accepted and spread throughout society in the Elizabethan age.
Women's Roles in Othello
In Shakespeare’s Othello you are presented with a cast of approximately twelve men and three women. All three of these women are a counterpart to a male in this story. The plot of the story consists of a general, Othello, being ruined by his jealousy because he believes his wife is cheating on his Lieutenant, Cassio. This jealousy is falsely placed in the mind of Othello by Iago.Othello ends up murdering his wife, injuring Iago, and then committing suicide. The other two women in the play are counterparts to Iago and Cassio. Of these three women none of them are an individual person. They are all three “owned” by a man. Even though this story is central to the women, they are still seen as subhuman and property. In this play, the characters claim to “love” one another, while it can be seen that the women are just property of the men. They are property to be used, dominated, and at times abused or even discarded if they have been “damaged”.
First, it is clear that the men in the play see Desdemona as a piece of property to be owned. Her father, Brabantio, is outraged after finding out Desdemona has run away and married Othello. He calls Othello a thief (I.2.55). Brabantio could be addressing Othello stealing away her virginity, or simply stealing away Desdemona. Either way he is addressing Desdemona as property. She is something to own that can be stolen. He sees Othello as a thief of his property. This breaks down the idea that Desdemona is a human being that has free will and has any right to make choices. She can’t love, she can only be owned. This idea is furthered when Othello “assigns” his wife to be looked after by Iago as he would a box of potatoes or swords and shields for fighting (I.3.283). Desdemona is no more than those things. She is simply a piece of property to be looked after. Even her father sees her this way. He tells Othello to keep an eye on her, for she could “betray” him like he has done to her. Meaning she could run away and not be a possession of his anymore just like she ran away from her father’s possession (I.3.293). In act two Othello addresses his marriage to Desdemona as a purchase (II.3.8). Iago is then led to believe that Othello has slept with his wife. Othello has trespassed on his property, referring to the situation as Othello “leaping into his seat” (II.1.286). The fact that he refers to her as his “seat” paired with the fact that he publicly humiliates her because he feel she is “used” property shows how he truly feels about their relationship. There is no love within the relationship between Iago and his wife Emilia, there is only possession and dominance by the male and submission by the female. Iago ends up murdering his wife, to try to quiet her to save his own life. Othello ends up also murdering his wife out of rage, claiming that he loved “not wisely but too well.” (V.2.344). These ideas further the ideology that men are the ones in power, purchasing their things – women, to use and discard if found to be “tainted” or trespassed on. Both of these women had become trespassed on. They had become used goods to both Iago and Othello, so they discarded them as if they were trash. They are nothing more than possessions. They may have well been a piece of paper to write upon, and once someone else has written on it, it is no longer useful. That’s how the men see these women.
Towards the middle of the story, Othello is thrown into a jealous rage due to the fact that he believes Cassio is trespassing on his property, in other words, sleeping with his wife. He is lead to believe this, not because of the actions of his wife which he “loves”, but because of what one of his trusted male lieutenants tells him. This furthers the ideas in the story that men are to be trusted above women, and the fact that there are male and female gender roles allows this to happen. The women are seen as meek and unable to tell the truth. As seen in act 1, Brabantio tells Othello to keep an eye on Desdemona so she doesn’t run away on Othello like she did to him. This furthers the idea that women are meek, and the only strength they have is to lie and to run away. In Act 4 scene 1 Othello strikes Desdemona after she innocently calls her “My Lord” and “Sweet Othello”. After being struck, Desdemona claims that she did not deserve that. As if she could ever deserve being struck by him. This is another scene where the men hold the power above the women. She is seen as meek and eager to please Othello. Othello is angry and controls her by striking her and plotting to kill her.
Towards the end of the play Othello is so enraged by what is being told to him that he finally confronts Desdemona about lying and being “used” by Cassio (V.2.70). The term “used” is important here. It shows that Othello, and the other men, do not care about whether or not they love the woman. It is a matter of property and trespassing. The fact that Othello feels trespassed against makes him feel as if Desdemona is now a worthless item. It is no longer uniquely his. She is damaged goods, no longer of use. So, he murders her (V.2.83-84). This is not to say that this doesn’t happen in today’s world either. There have been many cases of jealous husbands thinking their wife has cheated on them and if not murdering them, they have at least brutally beaten them. Even when asked who has killed her, when Desdemona reawakens for a few brief moments, she claims that nobody has killed her but herself (V.2.124). This again shows the submissive/dominant binary oppositions at play. Throughout the play, Othello is the masculine. He is powerful, angry, physical, strong, and a leader. Desdemona plays the feminine. She is weak, meek, submissive, talks rather than acts, and refrains from violence.
These few examples throughout the play give reasons to believe that the idea of love has nothing to do with the relationships between Desdemona and Othello, as well as the other male and female couples. The women can be seen as property of the men and this removes the idea that love had anything to do with these relationships in the first place. These relationships are all acts of power and authority over their female “counterparts”. This man/woman binary opposition is what leads to the masculine dominating over the feminine. If these people were all seen as humans rather than males and females the play wouldn’t have been much of a tragedy, but it also wouldn’t reinforce the ideology of male dominance and female submission. All-in-all I think there could be this type of situation in nearly any piece of literature. However, this play seems to point out some serious issues with these male/female roles and how love may not really exist for these people in this play. These men and women were not born believing they should fall into these serious masculine and feminine roles. They were turned into men and women via society. Wittig would argue that these ideas were cast upon them by society. I would have to agree.
While it is generally accepted that Shakespeare was a revolutionary of his time for his view of women and men being equals, this story still shows some of the inherent prejudices in his society. It is very hard to completely break free of all ideologies of the times, and Shakespeare, however, is no exception.
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