Women in Othello fulfil various roles in the play. A crucial role they take on is as a dramatic device. Othello shows us how a woman’s character, reputation and power can be manipulated and distorted by men, most notably Iago who orchestrated he demise and fall of Othello the protagonist.
The relationship between Desdemona and Othello is very peculiar, and would have been considered even more so at the time at which Shakespeare was writing, it therefore stands out in the play, not least because it is a mixed-race marriage but also because at the start of the play they appear to be on an equal standing, they have a mutual “respect” for one another. We are presented with a very powerful image of women at the start of the play;Desdemona has disobeyed her father and taken her chosen husband, although Desdemona does acknowledge that Othello is her “Lord” and that it is her “duty” to obey him. However, in their marital state, Desdemona does act as a dramatic device, bringing Othello into a domestic situation where he is inexperienced and ingenuous. This “circumscription and confine” causes his obsession with Desdemona to grow because she has become his whole world; Iago finds it easy to manipulate this situation because Othello is unaccustomed to life only in the domestic.
Desdemona’s character is constant and unbending throughout the play, she acts as a dramatic device to highlight Othello’s status, and her acceptance of him denotes his admirable qualities as a suitor and a husband:”She forsook so many noble matches, her father, and her country, and her friends.” to be with him; through her eyes Othello becomes attainable and real, she is his “soul’s joy” and this is reciprocated by the fact that her “heart is subdued, even to the very quality of [her] lord”. When Othello talks of wooing Desdemona he is portrayed as an eloquent storyteller and lover:”She gave me for my pain a world of sighs.” It is through her relationship with Othello that his demise is demonstrated, shown not only by her dented opinion of him, he was previously an ideal to her, but by the end of the play she has realised that “men are not gods”, but also by Othello’s swift dismissal of her as a “fair devil” and a “lewd minx” after his view of her where he would “deny her nothing” has been destroyed by Iago.
The downfall of Othello is marked by the obliteration of their once close and trusting relationship, which Iago has convinced Othello that it is a “foul disproportion.”Desdemona also increases the plausibility of the plot because her open nature and eagerness to help Cassio incite jealousy in Othello because Iago is able to abuse and distort this virtue in Othello’s mind:”My wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, is free of speech” becomes “who thou hadst ne’er been born.” Desdemona is a symbol of purity within the play, she truly is a “white ewe”, and her propriety, innocence and insistence that she would not commit adultery for “the whole world” increase the dramatic effect of her murder by her husband incited by unfounded jealousy.However, Desdemona does not act purely as a dramatic device to draw attention to Othello’s demise.
She undoubtedly holds the highest status among the three women and as well as enhancing the tragedy in the play she exists as a character in her own right. In Act 2 Scene 1 Desdemona asserts her individuality in her aside:”I am not merry but I do beguile/ the thing I am by seeming otherwise-” She also does not appear to fit into the meek depiction of women who “say nothing” as she challenges Iago’s point of view by calling “O fie upon the slanderer!” This image of a powerful woman would not have been commonplace in Elizabethan times, making her authoritative role even more outstanding in the play. Conversely, Shakespeare could have possibly been using Desdemona to show how difficult it was for women to uphold a commanding position because of the strict and stereotypical views of women prominent in the late 16th century; Iago exhibits this fixed view as he states that women are “players in [their] housewifery, and housewives in [their] beds”.Emilia and Iago’s volatile relationship mirrors the loving bond between Othello and Desdemona, Iago refers to Emilia as a “foolish wife” and the couple are constantly “chiding”.
Their difficult situation only enhances the purity and intimacy in Othello’s marriage and the poignancy of the reduction of their relationship to a “foul disproportion.” Similarly the influence of Iago’s crude and derogatory language is evident in Emilia’s vulgar and practical tone in her discussion of relationships:”They are all but stomachs, and we all but food:/ They eat us hungerly, and when they are full/ They belch us.” This contrasts hugely to the delicate language and imagery used by Desdemona as she speaks of Othello’s “honours and his valiant parts.”Emilia’s presence also increases the dramatic effect of Desdemona’s death because prior to her murder a dissimilarity of opinion between the two women is shown, Emilia refers to men as slacking “in their duties” and breaking “out in peevish jealousies”, whereas Desdemona is unwavering in her love for Othello:”My love doth so approve him/ That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns have grace and favour in them.
” Emilia offsets Desdemona’s naivety, which amplifies the unjustifiable and brutal strangling by Othello because her innocence is repeatedly reiterated in this scene.In Act 4 Emilia creates a powerful image of women, claiming that “we have galls, and though we have some grace,/ Yet we have some revenge.” She shows that in a relationship women do have power if they choose to assert it, this is shown in Othello’s despair at the thought that Desdemona may have been unfaithful to him, he is ruined by what she could have done, a prime example of the “revenge” which Emilia refers to. She also exerts power over Iago in the last scene when she reveals his true nature as she claims that “he begged me steal” the handkerchief showing that Desdemona was truly “chaste” and that it was Iago who masterminded the downfall of Othello.
However, in her attempt at revenge she dies and is referred to as a “villainous whore” by her husband. Essentially, Emilia shows the potential power, which women have, however, although this appears plausible both women who appear to do so are killed at the hands of men.Bianca is used to create a dramatic effect on stage, throwing Desdemona’s handkerchief at him claiming that it is a “minx’ token”, Othello sees this and is distraught. It is the proof, which incites his jealousy, and her relationship with Cassio further convinces Othello that Cassio is disreputable because of his “unwholesome” sexual relationship with Bianca; the whore.
In Bianca’s case, she really is only used as a dramatic effect to catalyse Othello’s demise, although it is arguable that she does assert her individuality in her outburst over Cassio keeping a mistress or “hobby-horse”.Shakespeare has used women in the play not only to heighten the dramatic effect of the plot as in the case with Bianca, but also to highlight the different facets of characters within the play; Desdemona fulfils the role in her attractive portrayal of him. However, the women are not solely represented for this purpose and their individual characters and opinions hold status within the play. The fact that women are mainly used to offset action and tragedy in the play does not, however, detract from their importance or the power which they hold because as they act as the catalysts without which the development of the plot would not be possible.