Gender Role and Tragedy Othello Essay
The Impact of Gender on Shakespeare’s Othello In the book “Gender Trouble” (1990), feminist theorist Judith Butler explains “gender is not only a social construct, but also a kind of performance such as a show we put on, a costume or disguise we wear” (Butler). In other words, gender is a performance, an act, and costumes, not the main aspect of essential identity. By understanding this theory of gender as an act, performance, we can see how gender has greatly impacted the outcome of the play in William Shakespeare’s Othello.
From a careful analysis of the story, tragedy in Othello is result of violating expected gender roles, gender performance by Desdemona and Othello, and the result of Iago’s inability to tolerate these violations. The tragedy “Othello” is written by William Shakespeare in 1604. The story is based on revenge of two characters, Othello and Iago. Othello, the play’s protagonist and hero, who has great reputation as one of Venice’s most competent generals. However, his jealousy causes the major tragedy in his life. This tragedy is brought by a simple manipulation of Iago, the villain of the play.
The jealousy led Othello to a path of constant questioning to his wife, and his friend Cassio. Throughout the play, he sinks deeper and deeper into his doubt and eventually that causes him to kill not only the love of his life, but also himself. In her work, “This that you call Love”: Sexual and Social Tragedy in Othello, Gayle Greene (2004) argues that the tragedy occurs from adherence to patriarchal rules and stereotypes (Greene 655-659). According to Gary Greene, the tragedy is caused by “men’s misunderstandings of women and women’s inability to protect themselves from society’s conception of them” (666).
In the 17th century, the norms of gender expectation set for women are passivity, softness, and obedience, in contrast to masculine qualities such as dominance, aggression, and authority. However, in Othello, the character of Desdemona surpassed the norms of gender set for women of that time. There is no doubt to consider Desdemona is violating the social norms because she is willing to breach her social roles as a daughter and even as a wife at times. Through her “incorrect” gender performance, Shakespeare portrays Desdemona as a strong, independent woman who breaks away the gender barriers of patriarchal society.
But at the end of the play, we know it is the consequence of her actions that have led her to death. Desdemona’s action, instead of asking her father’s permission, eloped with the Moor, Othello, is another form of social transgressive action. It seems she denies her father any right in choosing or granting, instead she decides in her own, to marry Othello. This act of independence illustrates Desdemona’s transgression to perform her role as daughter, and reflects icons of masculine which is considered as “incorrect” gender performance.
Marrying Othello has also proved that Desdemona breaks the social norms of women’s passivity during her time. From Desdemona’s conversation with her father, My noble father, I do perceive here a divided duty; To you I am bound for life and education; My life and education both do learn me How to respect you; you are the lord of duty, I am hitherto your daughter: but here’s my husband; And so much duty as my mother show’d To you, preferring you before her father, So much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor my lord (I. iii. 180-190) hows her courage to break the gender norms of passivity for women within the society. She marries her husband, Othello, under her own will. It is considered a wrong gender performance because in the early modern mind, it was prohibited for a white woman to marry a black man. When Othello was mandated to go to Cyprus, the Duke decided that Desdemona should return home with her father. But she defends herself and not allows the men to determine her destiny. Nor I; I would not there reside, To put my father in impatient thoughts By being in his eye.
Most gracious duke, To my unfolding lend your gracious ear; And let me find a charter in your voice To assist my simpleness (I. iii. 240-246). From this conversation, we know that it is her choice to stay with her husband. The insistence of determining her own destiny, for example, disobedience, marrying outside her race, culture, and her class are considered as contrary to the laws or the course of nature. In his play, “Othello”, Shakespeare writes as if, all these violating of gender norms are the keys factor to Desdemona’s destruction.
Butler states in her book, “there is no natural woman, and all of her gendered actions are scripted by forces outside herself” (Bulter). In other words, there are no right or wrong gender actions, and all gender norms are shaped by our society. From the lines of Iago in (II. i. 110-113), we see the version of correct “woman” which is set by society in the early 17th century. Iago states, Come on, come on; you are pictures out of doors, Bells in your parlours, wild cats in your kitchens, Saints in your injuries, devils being offended, Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds (II. . 110-113) According to Iago, women are all the same. They are beautiful, like pictures when they are in public places, but in their own houses, they are as noisy as bells. They act like saints when they are injured, but act like devils when they are offended. They do not take a job as housewives seriously but they are shameless hussy in bed (Spark notes). These gender expectations, stereotypical views of women, have given Iago advantage of convincing Othello. He does not even have to work very hard to convince Othello of Desdemona’s betrayal.
Although Othello is not free of the patriarchal ownership idea of possession of wife or daughter, compare with her father, Brabantio, in the early treatment of Othello toward Desdemona shows that at least he has a certain amount of recognition toward Desdemona as an individual person. According to Greene, “An integral aspect to the male performance of gender would be dependent on the behavior of the women related to them. To be a man, as it were, one must control one’s women” (Greene). By treating Desdemona with respect at the beginning, Othello’s behaviors is no doubt a socially transgressive action as much as Desdemona’s.
However, once Othello was convinced of Desdemona’s guilt by Iago, he did not stop to restore his manhood. In fact, it has driven him to a bloody vengeance. When Iago states, “She did deceive her father, marrying you” (III. Iii. 205), Othello believes that if Desdemona is willing to betray her father which is considered against gender norms, then she is capable, likely to betray him. The drive of returning to his male gender expectation is the cause of tragedy in this play. To compromise his gender performance, Othello states, “I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me! (IV. i. 182).
The gender expectation for males in the society is the security of his “job”/ “place”. (Leslie) In this play, Othello has passed Iago for promotion, and endangered his job. For a man like Iago, this could be considered as a horrific violation of male agenda. Jealously results from his inability to tolerate these gender violations. His terrific manipulation and deceiving skills are the causes of major tragic downfall of the play. In the end, we can conclude that Shakespeare used a very conservative world view in his play, “Othello”. Using the characters of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago, Shakespeare reinforced the stereotypes of his time.
In conclusion, gender expectations have greatly impacted the outcome of Shakespeare’s play, “Othello”, because the script of the play has reinforced the stereotypes such as girls who resist their fathers die, women who marry different race, class, and cultures die, and women who decide their own destiny die at the end. Through “Othello”, Shakespeare portrays women in a patriarchal system, and the result of the play is the consequences of gender disruptions. Therefore, there is no doubt that the gender expectations placed on both male and female characters have greatly impacted the outcome of Shakespeare’s play “Othello”.