Shakespeare’s work is undoubtedly the most popular and well known literature of all time. The fact that his work remains popular today is interesting, as many of his themes tend to verge on old fashioned, some even verging on offensive, especially by today’s standards. Specifically, Shakespeare’s Othello provides a few questionable themes. The most prevalently questionable theme in Othello is the theme of power and how it is used against women. In this essay I will focus on the female characters in Othello and analyze them through a feminist lense. While Shakespeare’s work is destined to remain unforgettable, it’s only fair to critique it with a modern lense in order to keep conversations about the texts relevant. Desdemona is the most prevalent female in Shakespeare’s Othello, however, that’s not saying much when one considers Desdemona’s circumstances as a character of the play.
While Desdemona is a key character to complete the plot of the play, she is really not much more than that. Unfortunately, Desdemona is really nothing more than a convenient character used to push the plot along, and is never really given any major depth. Ultimately, Othello’s plot revolves around two men, Desdemona’s husband, Othello, and the antagonist, Iago. The demographics of Othello basically suggest that the story belongs to the men, and reveals Shakespeare’s ideology of how women are really nothing more than pawns in a man’s world. Desdemona is in fact nothing more than a pawn in Othello, as the conflict between Iago and Othello is what drives Iago to use Desdemona as a means to bring down Othello. Iago has no regard for Desdemona as a person when he trashes her reputation in the eyes of her husband, and at no point in the play is there any indication that Iago feels any guilt for dragging Desdemona into his petty quarrel with her husband. We see Iago’s self serving attitude when his wife Emilia finds Desdemona’s handkerchief, and after his wife gives it to him, Iago plots… “I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin, And let him find it.
Trifles light as air Are to the jealous confirmations strong As proofs of holy writ; this may do something. The Moor already changes with my poison: Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons, Which at the first are scarce found to distaste, But with a little act upon the blood Burn like the mines of sulphur. I did say so. Look, where he comes!” (3.3.322-330) This quote reveals Iago’s selfish intentions as as he plots, he never even mentions Desdemona in his plan to poison Othello with false news of her infidelity. Desdemona’s fate is ultimately of no concern to Iago; Iago’s only concern is his quarrel with Othello. One wonders if Iago’s lack of thought for Desdemona is simply because he is overcome with hate for Othello, and his attention is too focused on his selfish intentions to think of how it would affect Desdemona, or if it is easy for Iago to disregard Desdemona because he has no regard for women. While one might be able make a case for either, it is more likely to say that Iago simply has no regard for women. Iago reveals his lack of respect for women through the way he treats his wife Emilia. Power is the only thing on Iago’s mind, and Iago feels entitled to obtain the power he desires in any way possible. Iago takes advantage of his power as a man by taking advantage of his wife’s desire to please him.
When Emilia finds the handkerchief and gives it to her husband, she admits… “I am glad I have found this napkin; This was [Desdemona’] first remembrance from the Moor. My wayward husband hath a hundred times Woo’d me to steal it; but she so loves the token, For he conjured her she should ever keep it, That she reserves it evermore about her To kiss and talk to. I’ll have the work ta’en out, And give’t Iago. What he will do with it Heaven knows, not I; I nothing but to please his fantasy.” (3.3.291-300) Emilia struggles with taking the handkerchief because she knows its value to Desdemona, but as she craves to please her cruel husband, and feel valued by him, she chooses to follow her hearts desire to be loved by her husband and give him the handkerchief. It’s important to note that Iago hardly even gives Emilia any credit but to say “A good wench, give it me”(3.3.314). He proceeds to snatch it from her hand and then refuses to tell her what he plans to do with it. Emilia’s fate is a final testament to Iago’s lack of care for the women in the play, as Iago ultimately murders his wife after finding out that she’s revealed his plot. To Iago, both Desdemona and Emilia were of no more use than pawn in a man’s game for power. From the very start of the play women are owned. In general they are owned in the sense that they are owned by their male playwright, Shakespeare. Desdemona as a character is owned in more contexts as well.
For example, Desdemona is initially owned by her father, and it is he who she must ask permission from in order to marry Othello. When he denies her request, this is the only time Desdemona actually makes an individual decision about her life. Desdemona defies her father and elopes with Othello; unfortunately, this just transfers power of her person from her father to her husband, and Desdemona herself admits it… “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.” (1.3.181-189) Overall, Desdemona’s lack of autonomy reveals the sexist society she was born of. Desdemona’s one moment of defiance and freedom of self does not go unpunished, of course. Iago takes advantage of her actions to poison Othello’s mind against her in his plan to gain power. He tells Othello, “She did deceive her father, marrying you;/ And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks,/ She loved them most”(3.3.207-209). That Iago can even use this as fuel for the fire reveals how even Othello, despite his love for Desdemona, feels that defiance of a man by a woman makes a woman’s character questionable.
Desdemona’s given nature and personality also lessens her as a character of equal value. Throughout the play, Desdemona is mostly unaware of Iago’s plot against her husband and his plans to use her as a means to bring Othello down. It’s already act three scene four by the time Desdemona even begins to see that Othello’s demeanor towards her has changed. Iago has used Desdemona’s stolen handkerchief by planting the idea in Othello’s head that Desdemona has given it to Cassio. Othello lashes out at Desdemona when he realizes that she doesn’t have the handkerchief of which she simply has lost. Desdemona confides in Emilia her surprise at Othello’s attitude…“I ne’er saw this before./Sure there’s some wonder in this handkerchief;/I am most unhappy in the loss of it”(3.4.90-92). Clearly Desdemona is at a loss to explain Othello’s outburst–It’s astounding that she never has any idea the extent to which her husband has changed against her until the very end. It’s the very last act of the play when Desdemona finds out why Othello has been acting strangely. Othello reveals that he believes that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him and tells her to pray for her sins… “OTHELLO. If you bethink yourself of any crime Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace, Solicit for it straight. DESDEMONA.
Alas, my lord, what may you mean by that?” (5.2.27-30) At this point Desdemona still has no idea why Othello has any cause to ask this question. Her lack of knowledge can be attributed to the fact that she is a woman. Throughout the play, Othello had every chance to ask Desdemona outright if there was any truth to Iago’s accusations, however, Othello chose to take Iago (a man) at his word, instead of confronting his wife and giving her the opportunity to absolve herself. Othello’s lack of consideration and requirement for his wife’s explanation reveals how little her word means to him, as as he chooses to solely believe Iago, it is as if he is admitting that he couldn’t believe the word of a woman over a man’s. Ultimately, it is a woman’s word against a man’s, and for Othello, the choice is clear. Desdemona’s lack of knowledge in regards to Iago’s plot isn’t only the fault of Othello’s, however, is also the fault of her author. Throughout the work, the author made the decision to keep Desdemona’s character in the dark–even the audience was in the know of what was happening to her and why. One wonders why Shakespeare made the decision to keep Desdemona ignorant, perhaps it is because Shakespeare has very little reverence for the intelligence of women. Emilia, Iago’s wife is also kept in the dark until the end. Emilia’s ignorance is even more interesting to consider in that she was much nearer to the action and to her husband, who was the master plotter. While Emilia was ignorant of her husband’s plot, she was not ignorant of Othello’s concern of Desdemona cheating.
Although Othello never goes to his wife to seek the truth, he does ask Emilia, who was very close to his wife. Emilia professes that Desdemona would never be unfaithful to Othello… “I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest, Lay down my soul at stake. If you think other, Remove your thought; it doth abuse your bosom. If any wretch have put this in your head, Let heaven requite it with the serpent’s curse! For if she be not honest, chaste, and true, There’s no man happy; the purest of their wives Is foul as slander.” (4.2.12-19) Emilia professes her trust and faith in Desdemona’s innocence so sincerely as to say that she would “Lay down [her] her soul at stake” (4.2.12). It’s notable that Othello does consult Emilia on her opinion of his wife, however, he soon disregards her assurance of his wife’s innocence. Othello’s action of asking Emilia’s opinion may make it appear as though Othello has some respect of women, however, his true colors are shown when he chooses to mistrust her word, and we see Othello really is only using Emilia to fish for information, and doesn’t necessarily respect her intelligence. Desdemona’s fate is also proof of how women are portrayed as weak in Othello. Desdemona is strangled to death after Othello falls victim to Iago’s evil plot, believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Being a woman, there was no hope for Desdemona to struggle free from the physical power of a man, and so her life was easily taken. All along her life had been played with like a pawn by Iago, her life in his hands, and then at her end, her life was literally in the hands of a man as he squeezed it out of her.
The same fate exists for Emilia who is stabbed by her husband. Emilia had one act of defiance against a man just as Desdemona did; Emilia disobeys her husband in order to speak the truth for the sake of clearing Desdemona’s name and professes in front of all who gather around Desdemona’s corpse, “Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak;/ ‘Tis proper I obey him, but not now./Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home” (5.2.196-198). In this moment Emilia accepts that she will die because she disobeyed her husband in speaking out when he bid her not to. This further illustrates man’s authority over women within this society, as men ultimately have the power to kill women if they usurp the power of their husbands. However, Emilia accepts her death sentence and allows it to happen, because in her mind she is dying for truth and for her mistress. Ultimately, both women die with clean consciences and are freed in death. When it comes to the fate of Iago and Othello, they are not as fortunate. Iago, of course, is unhappy that his plan is foiled, but he has no remorse. Iago will be punished, however, the certainty of punishment seems to have no effect on him; in fact he states that he has nothing more to say about his actions, and refuses to speak on it anymore. It is not a surprise that he is without remorse as his punishment will not be severe, “although husbands were strongly discouraged from battering their wives, such “correction” was legally allowed. Indeed, according to “the rule of thumb,” a man might beat his wife almost to death as long as he wielded an instrument no thicker than that opposing finger, [and] if death resulted, the husband could plead guilty of manslaughter rather than of murder if he could prove “only an intent to chastise, not to kill”(Blackstone, 4: 200)”(Deats, 235). In a world of male judges, I’m sure it would not be difficult for Iago to “prove” how his actions against his wife were out of chastisement…and if we imagine that he killed her with a dagger, one might say that what he wielded against Emilia was well within the “rule of thumb”.
As for Othello, it appears he is overcome with grief for what he has done. He cries out “Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil/ Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?” (5.2.303-304). This line reveals that he blames Iago for being so misled. While he demonstrates some of the guilt by killing himself for his misdeed, his words seem to focus more on himself and his self pity than they do for his innocent wife’s fate. Othello feels that it was his soul and his body had been ensnared, however, he had been independent throughout all the events, and truly, it was Desdemona whose body and soul were literally ensnared by men, and ultimately taken. Unfortunately, both Desdemona and Emilia’s murders would go unpunished due to the time period that they would have existed in. Even though both women’s death’s were nearly witnessed by other parties, their deaths would have simply been thought of as a domestic issue, and not anyone else’s business. One might argue, however, that Emilia and “Desdemona [are] killed by not only Othello and Iago, but also by all those who see [them] humiliated and beaten in public, and fail to intervene”(Vanita, 348). Specifically we see such an instance in act four scene one with Desdemona. In this scene Othello strikes Desdemona in front of Lodovico as it has already been planted by Iago in Othello’s mind that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Today, if one were to witness such a crime and fail to report it, they would automatically be known as being an accessory to the crime. Accessory to crime is defined as follows…”A person who learns of the crime after it is committed and helps the criminal to conceal it, or aids the criminal in escaping.
Or, simply failing to report the crime, is known as an ‘accessory after the fact'(law.cornell.edu). It is interesting that the witness of this crime against Desdemona is male. It seems as if this play defines men as being the law. This point becomes even more relevant if one were to reflect on the scene is which Cassio strikes Montano, “this [act of violence] is treated as a public act, a crime that must, like any act of cognizable violence even today, be pursued and punished by state. [for Montano,] a trial is virtually conducted on the spot, witnesses forced to testify, and Cassio’s drunken state [is] not admitted as an excuse(Vanita, 348). The double standard in this instance is incredible, “Othello’s cruelty, Desdemona’s defenselessness…graphically accentuates the abuse of power inherent in the dominant matrimonial ideology of the [time] period”(Deats, 233). The scene especially shows how inherent male dominance is, being that Othello’s violence against Desdemona is done soberly, unlike Cassio’s violence against Montano. Ultimately, reading Shakespeare’s Othello through a feminist lense allows conversations about such an old text to remain relevant. Today women continue to struggle for equality simply because of gender. While women are allowed more autonomy in today’s culture, they are still valued as less than men, an example to consider might be the wage gap in which men are paid more than women for the same job. Discussing the issue of gender equality through Shakespeare’s Othello allows for a more powerful perspective on gender inequality as well, as as it is hundreds of years old, it reveals how archaic it is to treat women as less than human in comparison to men. This text also allows for many discussions to be had, not only about the treatment of women, but also about the representation of women.
While literature often allows a creative license for its author, it is important as readers to remember who women are being represented by in the text, as to understand why they are being represented in the way that they are and in order to decide how seriously the text can be taken. Shakespeare’s Othello does provide an accurate representation as to how women would have most likely been expected to act, and provides an accurate representation of how they might have been treated during this time period; however, the text does underestimate women in that it implies that they can’t help this, that they submit to men because women are born without the desire for autonomy. Shakespeare ultimately implies that women admit to being the weaker sex. However, we know that women are not, in fact, reliant on men, and that they are just the same in respect intelligence and desire. While Othello is slightly offensive in its implied assumptions when held up against the values of today’s society, it’s an important text to continue to visit as a reminder to the disaster that is inevitable when all people are not considered.