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Shakespeare's Attitude Toward Women in "Othello"
A quick summary of the play can be found here.
Shakespeare was always wary of women and careful to give them respect, which is obvious when reading Othello. The society of Othello is strongly dominated by men who are the political and military leaders of their homeland. These men are expected to stay loyal to their reputations and to uphold the strong sense of character that earned them their positions in the first place. Women on the other hand, are thought of as weak second-class citizens or even defective males, who are in place for nothing more than to serve their men. The captivating thing about Othello is Shakespeare’s upheaval of these expectations, demonstrating his malaise over the way gender relationships were so often represented. The monstrous actions and subsequent downfall of the men in Othello show how no one is above being corrupted and how men are not nearly as powerful as they seem. The resolve of the female characters demonstrates their capacities to do much more than simply serve. Furthermore, by the end of the play, I believe the men of Othello are not the ones who represent strength; instead, this title goes to the women.
From the way the play begins, women seem like nothing more than affectionate wives and pawns in Iago’s evil scheme. Emilia claims, “I nothing, but to please his fantasy,” (Norton Ed., 2157) referring to Iago, as she snatches up Desdemona’s handkerchief in order to give it to her husband. Such a line seems uncharacteristically submissive compared to the Emilia of later on, but it also shows her intriguing devotion to her husband who seems to care nothing for her. She does not trust Iago entirely though, as she tries to take the handkerchief back when Iago cannot explain why he wants it. Of course, the man is easily able to overpower his wife and he orders her to depart, which she does, leaving Iago to bask in satisfaction as his plan seems to fall into place. Little does he know, his wife knows him better than he gives her credit for, and he will have to answer to her in the end.
Desdemona's Sexual Power Over Her (Supposedly) Mighty Man
At this point in the play, the men are the dominant figures. Most of the attention has been given the power struggle between Iago and the rest, and the women are often brushed to the side. Yet, as Shakespeare delves deeper into Othello’s tormented mind, it becomes clear that his wife has an incredible power over him. Some of the Moor’s most raw and desperately tortured lines come out as he appears to become weakened by Iago’s words. He states, “I had been happy if the general camp, / Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known,” (Norton Ed., 2158) as he grieves over the words Iago has poisoned him with about the supposed infidelity of his wife. These lines speak volumes about Othello’s vulnerability to words as he blatantly admits that he would rather not be told that his wife is false because he cannot cope with the thought of her with someone else. The emotions are all the more striking because they are so relatable to those of us who understand jealousy and heartbreak.
When one is truly in love, it can be hard to think about anything else, and for a man to imagine his lover with another man can be as agonizing an ordeal as any in life. It therefore makes sense that Othello bids his life goodbye at this point by exclaiming, “Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content, / Farewell the pluméd troops and the big wars / That makes ambition virtue!” (Norton Ed., 2158). If Desdemona is untrue, all of Othello’s glory would be violently stripped away. Any future successes will only come at the expense of the loss of his wife, and he cannot cope with such dramatic failure. Such forfeiture of life by Othello indicates not only the power of Iago’s words, but of Desdemona’s body as well, which may be the most potent weapon of all.
Famous Handkerchief Scene featuring Ian McKellen and Willard White. The Portrayal of Manipulation and Emotional Destruction is Unrivaled
Emilia's Refusal to Submit and the Rise of Feminine Bravado
Iago’s plan seems to work very well as he strategically poisons the minds of his fellow men. Yet, his gross underestimation of his wife is where his scheme unfurls. A very revealing passage is when Emilia bitterly states, “’Tis not a year or two shows us a man, / They are all but stomachs, and we all but food. / They eat us hungrily, and when they are full, / They belch us.” Emilia’s antipathy toward males contradicts any societal notions of female meekness. Her words are bold demonstrations against men who want nothing but to use women for their own pleasure, and they should strike a chord with any man who thinks he may take his lover for granted. Emilia is obviously not as willing to submit to men as other women may be, and for the first time she shows herself as a possible foe against the seemingly unstoppable Iago.
Emilia continues to defend the name of women as the play moves forward, and is characterized as anything but submissive in her conversations and actions. She becomes more distant from her husband and draws ever nearer to her true companion of Desdemona whose side she refuses to leave. In her most important speech of the play, Emilia at last calls men out as equals and expresses her unwillingness to be heartlessly cast aside. She states, “And have not we affections, / Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have? / Then let them use us well, else let them know / The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.” (Norton Ed., 2179) Her bitter, uncompromising, and inspiring words here are surely Shakespeare’s warning to men that they best take care of women. As Othello has already demonstrated, the love and affection of a female is an awful thing to lose. Emilia’s cogent perspective signifies the death of male-dominated sex for sport. Yet even more so, it signifies the death of male domination in its entirety. By this point, it is clear from Othello’s words that women can destroy men with nothing more than their sexuality and for a woman to share her willingness to harness this power is striking. This is the point where Shakespeare makes clear that the women of Othello are much more than “defective males,” and that the men will have to pay for their mistakes in falsely judging these women.
By now, the characters with the most strength seem to be Emilia and Iago. Desdemona does not necessarily agree with Emilia’s independent attitude, and Othello’s mental state is weakening as he is “impregnated” by Iago’s poisonous words. Only in the final act of the play is a climax reached and Shakespeare’s conclusions regarding the power balance between men and women are fully elucidated. In the end, the women are victorious for several reasons.
Sexual Power Revisited
Othello’s strength is shattered as he undermines the vows of his marriage because he cannot handle his emotions. He is played for a fool by Iago and allows his own self-conscious woes to cripple his better senses. In his suicide he admits his wrongs and his defeat. He valued the words of a man he considered his friend over those of his wife, and for such a mistake he is justly punished. Desdemona, although murdered, shows far greater strength than her husband. She shows phenomenal moral strength and honesty as she never sways from her vows of marriage or does anything to wrong her husband. When she is asked who killed her, Desdemona’s final words are, “Nobody, I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!” (Norton Ed., 2185). These words show her enduring moral strength in not vilifying Othello even when he deserves it most. She also seems unafraid to die and confident in the “kind lord” to take care of her in the after-life. Desdemona’s actions in comparison to those of Othello make him seem like a pathetic excuse for a man. In this instance, the woman is no doubt the one who deserves respect.
Emilia's Fierce Murder and Martyrdom
When it comes to Iago and Emilia, victory for the female comes about in a different manner. After Desdemona is murdered, Emilia is hysterical and delivers her most emotionally forceful and penetrating lines of the play. She no longer feels compelled to submit in any way to her husband, and in fact, she daringly goes against his word in order to let the truth be told. As Iago tells her to shut up, Emilia retorts, “I will not charm my tongue. I am bound to speak. / My mistress lies murdered in her bed,” and goes on to directly indict her husband by stating, “your reports have set the murder on.” (Norton Ed., 2187). Such words could not possibly come from a woman as desperately loyal as Desdemona, but Emilia is a far different type of woman, and she understands when the time to harness her power is right. Her words are the reason for her husband’s downfall. Without such an unrelenting speech from Emilia, justice against Iago could never be served, and even though Iago pitifully murders her, nothing is more suitable than for such a brutally honest barrage of words to destroy him in return. The poison of his lies is not undone with his arrest in the end, but Emilia’s onslaught of truth easily overpowers any strength Iago may have still possessed. Emilia dies a martyr’s death for women willing to stand up for themselves and show that they can be just as dangerous as men whereas Iago is left to suffer for the remainder of his days in shame.
How Did Shakespeare Really Feel?
Judging by his characterizations of Desdemona and Emilia in Othello, Shakespeare could have either had great admiration for women, a deep-seated fear of them, or just been confused altogether. In the very least, he gave them respect. Since it is known that Othello was revised with the specific intent of augmenting Emilia’s role, it seems obvious that Shakespeare understood the strength of character women could possess. In reality, Shakespeare’s wife was much older than he, and quite possibly a bit more sexually experienced at the time of their marriage. He had to cope with such a relationship and inevitably learn many lessons about how women operate. Although no man can ever fully understand the way a woman thinks, Shakespeare had an uncanny ability to portray his female characters in frighteningly believable ways.
I see Desdemona as woman’s sexual superiority over men. She shows how a woman can put a spell on a man and drive him to madness by doing nothing than being pure and beautiful. Emilia is man’s punishment should he ever take his woman for granted. She makes men pay for their abuses by channeling her natural feminine strength against her own evil husband. These two women are spectacular examples of the capabilities women have in terms of strength.
If Shakespeare intended to warn men against miscalculating the potential of women, then he succeeded in Othello. The play is an ode to the wonders of the female sex. It is a mysterious sex that can seem as harmless as the face of Desdemona, or as indomitable as the words of Emilia. In either case, it is clear that men are not the only ones who deserve to rule humanity, and in many cases, they do not rule at all. As witnessed in Othello, the powers of women can overwhelm a man’s strongest intentions with ease. Through this work, Shakespeare warns us of this. Yet it is hard to tell whether this warning is for men to greet with reassurance or with fear. Women can be great allies, yet maybe far greater foes.
From your experiences, how do you feel about the portrayal or women in Othello?
Do you agree with an inherent power of women over men?
Are Shakespeare's views still relevant?
In Your Opinion...
Who do you believe is the play's most "powerful" character?
The definitive Shakespeare collection. This book literally has everything, from his Sonnets to his plays, and is all you need for a lifetime of reading. Also offers great notes and insights. I love this book! A must have for Shakespeare enthusiasts!
If you're just interested in Othello, I recommend the Norton Ed.