Theme of Gender Discrimination in Othello
Othello is a manifestation of gender discrimination prevailing at that time. It clearly refer to sexism that is not only inclined toward male chauvinism but also a degraded social status of women in the contemporary society. All three major female characters of the play epitomize this gender discrimination and manifest female victimization. These three characters represent three different classes and illustrate that gender discrimination and maltreatment of women were not subjected to social class as it prevalent from rascals to royals.
Shakespearean tragedy has two distinct portions with regard to gender bias and discrimination. In the first half of the play, women are portrayed with glowing colors and not negative terminology or abuses are attributed to them. Reader is little equipped to digest the abuses and gender discrimination in the second half and he become accustomed to eulogies and praises that are directed toward women. For example Cassio eulogize “divine” Desdemona while waiting for sips(2.
1.60-73). He further shows regret and unwillingness to contribute to Iago’s “gutter talk” about Desdemona. Later Othello speaks positively of his mistress at reunion and put across his elevated praise of her:
“I cannot speak enough of this content,/ It stops me here; it is too much of joy (1.2.196-197).”
The only character that shows malice against women is Iago. But it does not seem that gender discrimination is weaved in the patterns of the society but it seems coming out of Iago’s devious and diabolical figure. Again his sole objective seems to undermine Desdemona’s faithfulness. So no other character verbalizes anything abusive about the female gender in the first two Acts.
Again in the fourth Act, it is Iago that set the impetus for gender discrimination and uses abusive language. For example he speaks to audience and uses insulting terminology about Bianca that smells of gender favoritism. He says;
“Now will I question Cassio of Bianca,/ A huswife that by selling her desires/ Buys herself bread and clothes.”
“It is a creature/ That dotes on Cassio (as ’tis the strumpet’s plague/ To beguile many and be beguil’d by one)” (4.1.93-97).
Earlier, Iago has used more subtle abuse against the queen. He says to Othello;
“O, ’tis the spite of hell, the fiend’s arch-mock,
To lip a wanton in a secure couch, And to suppose her chaste (4.1.70-72)!”
This situation is further aggravated by the Othello slap and insult of Desdemona in 4.1.240. In the same scene Casio joins Iago to record his contempt and disapproval of women especially Bianca;/ Alas, poor caitiff (4.1.108).
And “Alas, poor rogue, I think, I’ faith, she loves me (4.1.111).”
In the second scene of act, this abusive language becomes more harsh and it seems that royal fabrications of mannerism and etiquettes has been replaced by original social patterns of the contemporary world. Now the real men of society display their real nature and that is manifested by the language they use for women. For example, Othello condemn Desdemona in this way;
“This is a subtile whore/ A closet lock and key of villainous secrets (4.2.21-22).”
“Was this fair paper [i.e., Desdemona], this most goodly book/ Made to write ‘whore’ upon? What committed?/ Committed? O thou public commoner,/ I should make very forges of my cheeks.” (4.2.71-74).”
This utterance is not only a reaction of the resentment that Iago has planted in the mind of Othello but it has deep roots too. The overall social pattern has contributed toward a psychological being that becomes skeptic of a woman’s fidelity without any reason. The are certain social generalization about the nature of women that contribute toward men’s contempt for women and augments the gender discrimination. For example when Othello demands any visual evidence of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, Iago replies;
“It is impossible you should see this,
Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys… (3.3.402-403).”
Emilia is in the tradition of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet- a character who is coarse-minded, earthy but devotedly attached to her mistress. Her being a companion to Desdemona enables her to reveal not only her own wide experience of the world but also to highlight Desdemona’s innocence and idealism. The commonsensical realism of Emilia provides a refreshing contrast to Desdemona’s unpractical idealism.
Her very first dialogue in the play indicates the matrimonial and domestic she was suffering from. Her response to Iago’s comments;
“I find it still, when I have list to sleep: /Marry, before your ladyship, I grant, /She puts her tongue a little in her heart, /And chides with thinking.” (II. I 891-894) she says, “You have little cause to say so” (II.i.895). The critic Adamson is of the view that “She knows. . . . it is less painful to suffer his scornful abuse than to challenge and try to change him” (247). So her silence and so short a reply is tool to hide herself in her own cocoon and an agonizing acknowledgement of triviality in the domestic sphere.
Desdemona believes that Emilia would not commit adultery for the whole world. Emilia replies that the world is a huge thing and a big reward for such a small vice. When Desdemona insists that she believes Emilia would not do any such thing, Emilia becomes more explicit.
Emilia’s stout defense of Desdemona proves futile because Othello decides to regard her as Desdemona’s bawd. However, Emilia has other functions in the play. In the first place it is she who provides Iago with the handkerchief which he puts to such a terrible use. Emilia makes matters more complicated when she professes ignorance as Desdemona asks her whether she knows where she could have dropped her handkerchief. In both these instances, Emilia is culpable, but it may be said in her defense that she is quite un aware of committing anything more than a minor violation of truth.
At the death of Desdemona she felt herself very much grief stricken:
“….Villainy, villainy, villainy!/I think upon’t : I think smell’t: O villainy!/I thought so then: I ‘ll kill myself for grief:/ O villainy, villainy!” (191-194)
When she once realizes that her husband used the handkerchief to implicate her mistress, she condemns and exposes him without fear although she loses her life in doing so;
“Good gentleman, let me have leave to speak,/‘Tis proper I obey him, but not now:/ Perchance, Iago. I will ne’er go home.” (196-198)
She is equally forthright in condemning Othello for suspecting and murdering Desdemona. She seems to express the feelings of the audience at that point when she abuses the Moor and says that he was unworthy of Desdemona. In her dying moments she tells Othello that his wife really and deeply loved him and although she herself thinks that her mistress made a poor bargain I marrying him, she has scrupulously kept that bargain. She identifies herself with her mistress by singing the same song which she sang on the eve of her death.
Emilia may be said to represent the ordinary people who commonly figure in Shakespeare, people who are not extraordinarily virtuous in daily life, but who are gifted with a reasonable perceptiveness and commonsense and are capable of heroism in times of crisis. Her complete transformation comes with the resolution to reveal the truth when she says;
“Twill out, ’twill out: I peace! /No, I will speak as liberal as the north…” (V. ii. 3561-62)
And her disclosure;
“O thou dull Moor! that handkerchief thou speak’st of /I found by fortune and did give my husband;…”(V. ii. 3570-71)
A.C. Bradley remarks about this transformation; “Till close to the end she frequently sets one’s teeth on edge; and at the end one is ready to worship her” (p. 205). Above-mentioned arguments and textual and extra-textual evidence clearly suggest that Shakespeare’s exposes the gender discrimination that was prevailing in his contemporary society at various levels. She further characterizes the triviality of his feminine characters in order to reflect their low and humble status in the social set-up.
Works Cited Page
Adamson, Jane. Othello as tragedy: some problems of judgment and feeling. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1980
Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare”s Othello. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean tragedy : lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.
Nostbakken, Faith. Understanding Othello A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and
Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Ridley, M.R. Othello. Cambridge : Harvard University Press. 1958.
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