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Even today, in this vast, futuristic society we live in, there are still cultures bent on oppressing women. However, it appears that almost every society at one point or another subjected women to this. Logically, one has to conclude that these cultures heavily influenced the ideas of authors in their respective times. One such author, William Shakespeare, created works that arguably reflected his own culture as well, despite making noticeable attempts at points to break common literary traditions. Unfortunately for Shakespeare, though, his style of writing also made him a popular target for feminist critics. At present there is still debate of how misogynistic his writings were. At surface level, one can understand why with plays like Othello, where women are, in some regards, treated little more than property and even subjected to domestic abuse. Yet it appears that people often forget to factor in Shakespeare's time period, which would have played a major role in shaping the work. Decisively, despite Othello having misogynistic undertones, women in the play were generally painted positively and empowered and the undertones result simply from the state of the culture at the time of its writing.
Over several decades, scholars have studied the nature in which Othello portrays women and found a plethora of justifications that upon closer inspection much of the play can be viewed as pro-woman due to subtle, positive roles undertaken by the female characters. Othello features three women which can be examined for these purposes: Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca. Given that Othello is a play, dialogue provides the main textual evidence from which scholars derive their analytical conclusions. Eamon Grennan pointed out the importance of dialogue by saying, "Othello is a play of voices, a dazzling register of pitch, range, and intonation" (275). We can assume, however, that Grennan is also eluding to the fact that how the women say something is as essential as what they are saying. Considering that even the slightest inflection on certain words can change the pragmatics of a sentence, this is quite an obvious sentiment to consider when analyzing.
In this logic, one must wonder how the "how" of women's speech shows them in a positive light. One character, Bianca, is a particularly interesting subject in this regard. Being a prostitute of sorts, she is all ready being presented to the audience as a sexual object, obviously not a very positive light to portray her in. However, despite being in the play for so short a time, not only is there enough focus being given to her to oppress her, a strange aspect given she is a very minor character, but she also leaves quite an impression on the audience and stands out as a peculiarity compared to the heavenly Desdemona and the doughty, average Emilia. As Grennan pointed out, "In everything she says (and in many ways she is the most outspoken character in the play) her speech rings with this expansive honesty of feeling" (283). Numerous instances in the text appear to uphold Grennan's assertion. In one instance, Bianca has the audacity to outright accuse Cassio of cheating on her.
O Cassio, whence came this?
This is some token from a newer friend.
To the felt absence now I feel a cause.
Is't come to this? Well, well.
There is quite a sense of irony, considering that in their relationship, Bianca is the prostitute and the one who should be assumed as having other liaisons with men. Yet, it is she accusing Cassio of an affair and not vice verse (a direct contrast to Othello accusing Desdemona). In this sense, the simple fact that Cassio, the man, is being forced to stand and face accusations (as well as having to even deny them in the first place) proves that Bianca is a powerful woman and not one who will stand to be oppressed like other women or have any shame in her occupation.
In a similar manner, Grennan also helps elude one to another point of thought. It is said that sometimes silence, in itself, is the best answer to anything. The Bill of Rights' 5th Amendment even supports this right to silence as it is an important right to have. Grennan asserted that, through silence, the women almost as strongly reflect their own emotions. The strongest evidence, according to Grennan, occurs with Emilia. "In her very silence, however, it is easy to detect the unhappy antagonism between the husband and wife, a condition exacerbated by her humiliating need to win his affection" (Grennan 283-284). However, Emilia is obviously not the only character guilty of this. Desdemona as well, often uses especially, as Grennan too points out. We can note this as especially prevalent towards the end as Othello begins accusing Desdemona of infidelity. In response to a long speech by Othello accusing her of being a whore, Desdemona simply replies, "By heaven, you do me wrong" (IV.ii.83). Through her sheer silence along, we can sense Desdemona's conclusions that her efforts are probably in vain and that nothing she says will convince Othello, which proves to be true later on. With this evidence, we can again conclude women are important characters. To understand, one must take into mind past literature, where most women were meant to fall into the background. In this instance, even in silence Shakespeare's women prove to be powerful entities who are important enough they need not speak to still remain in memory. Thus, comparatively, these women of Othello are more empowered than their predecessors.
With all the scenes in Othello, one in particular, commonly referred to as the "willow scene" (IV.iii), stands in drastic contrast to the rest of the scenes. Though Lodovico and Othello are present at the very beginning of the scene, they leave by line 10 and the scene turns to focus on two women: Desdemona and Emilia. This, in itself, is quite strange since there are not only more male characters in the play, but Desdemona and Emilia are truly meant to have minor roles in comparison to Othello, the protagonist, and Iago, the antagonist. In line with Grennan's focus on the "how," Grennan concluded, "What moves us, it seems to me, is the rise and fall of voices engaged in intimate conversation; the brief, beautiful pause in the center of action the song makes" (277). While Grennan focuses on the beauty of the scene throughout this part of the article, one important aspect is simply that it is meant to move the audience. The reason for why is also eluded to by Grennan as well.
The knowledge most readers or audiences have that within a very short time both these women will be dead, violently murdered by their husbands, must also contribute to the special pathos the scene generates. (277)
In this regard, women providing a morbid pathos in the midst of everything else in the play assigns the women with an important role. The pathos provided, in fact, provides more sympathy for the women's plight then anything. Even when Othello leaves and orders Desdemona to bed, she simply replies, "I will, my lord" (IV.iii.10). In this sense, the scene paints the women as more sensitive and kindly than it provides to paint the men, who are very little assigned such melancholy scenes.
There is still further evidence, however, that the reader is meant to sympathize with Desdemona rather than despise her for some negative trait. Both Grennan and English Professor Ronk point out in their articles that the setting for the "willow scene," in the bedroom, almost creates an intimate world away from men. Ronk argues that in a similar manner to Shakespeare's Hamlet, Desdemona's character transforms into a different interpretation, as signaled by the sudden transition to a slow, intimate scene. In this way, the audience is prompted to examine the character with comparative visuals (61-62). Obviously, the image we are supposed to compare Desdemona to is the willow, since that is what she sings about. Let us examine how the willow is represented in the scene's song.
"The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow."
From that passage, with the help of the glossary, we know that symbolically speaking that Desdemona's song is about a "disappointed love." Assuming Ronk is correct in the assertion Desdemona is to be viewed in a similar light, then Desdemona's disappointment with love reflects her dire, forlorn situation with Othello. Ronk also agrees with this assertion by explaining, "The figures in the song are allegorical, the means by which Desdemona projects herself into a visual image and thereby manages to reveal her sadness, betrayal, and isolation" (63). To this end, the audience is forced to sympathy with Desdemona, since she obviously regrets the situation as it currently is. By doing this, the scene blatantly removes blame from Desdemona, making her a saintly character compared to Othello who is coming to kill her.
In the same manner, there is much to be learned from how the women, especially Desdemona, compares to the men in Othello. Joan Holmer goes so far as to assert that the real warrior in Othello is, in fact, Desdemona as opposed to Othello (in the metaphorical sense at least). Holmer's most direct evidence comes from incidents in the text.
...Shakespeare catches us off guard when Desdemona is identified as a warrior twice in the play, once by Othello who greets her on the seemingly peaceful battlefront of Cyprus as his "fair warrior" (II.i.180) and once by herself when she calls herself in the subsequent act an "unhandsome warrior" (III.iv.152) for uncharitably arraigning Othello. (132)
There is a question, none-the-less, how truthfully these terms hold in regards to the rest of the play. Citing Homer's evidence again, Desdemona constantly and skillfully uses dialogue and speech to fight her battles, effectively making them her weapon again the male dominated world. (137-144). We can assert this to be true, since unlike Othello, Desdemona is not a true warrior. She can not wield a weapon like the men can and therefore only has reason on her side. However, noteworthy is that she actually uses these reasoning talents to propagate herself out of trouble (for a short time). While Othello is complaining about the missing handkerchief, Desdemona expertly distracts him with a different matter: Cassio (III.iv.26-94). Inevitably, Desdemona's insistence drives Othello out of the room, proving that reasoning to persist in one topic, rather than address the handkerchief, at least bought her a few more moments of life. Regardless, by being a "warrior" Desdemona enlightens herself as a truly empowered woman and, is possibly, as powerful as the male characters in her own way.
Like several of Shakespeare's plays, miscommunication and gender difference help to propel the plot forward. As established previously, through use of the willow-scene, the women's appearance generally differed quite a bit from the men. Regardless, one must address further how this difference can be seen. "The men in Othello extend and darken the traits of the comedy heros. They are, in Emilia's words, 'murderour coxcombs' (V.ii.234). Three out of the five attempt murder; five of the five are foolish and vain" (Neely 137). Neely's statement very decisively sums up all the negative qualities of men in the play. While they also have some admirable qualities, all the men are inevitably driven to commit crimes in one way or another, whether it is caused by the manipulation of others, like Cassio getting into a fight, or through sheer hatred, like Iago instigating almost every bad occurrence in the play.
In stark contrast, Neely states, "The women in Othello are not murderous, and they are not foolishly idealistic or foolishly cynical as the men are. From the start they, like the comedy heroines, combine realism with romance, mockery with affection" (139). If we view the text, Neely may indeed be correct about the women illuminating affection in comparison. Though murdered, Desdemona takes on the burden of an important task with how she answers Emilia's question of who her murderer is. "Nobody I myself. Farewell" (V.ii.128). Though on her very death bed, Desdemona's love compels her to absolve Othello of all his crime in regards to her unfortunate demise. Not only does this demonstrate Neely's point of kindness, it also shows that the romantic aspect of their relationship existed till the very end. In Othello's case, however, he seems to entirely disregard this kindness. "O thou pernicious caitiff!- How came you, Cassio, by that handkerchief That was my wife's?" (V.ii.328-330). Though in context Othello is just learning of Iago's deceit, he still chooses to focus on the handkerchief, which may reflect his own cynicism to his crime of murder. Either way, this evidence provided by Neely shows how, in comparison to the men, the women are far more positive role-models.
In addition to the contrast previously mentioned, Othello's own direct opposition to Desdemona in conduct requires attention as well. The beginning of Othello contains much romantic language and the constant professions of love between Desdemona and Othello. As Othello continues on towards the climax, more and more dialogue between Desdemona and Othello becomes hostile as the two are further and further retched apart. However, much of this stark contrast in different speech in not in fact due to Desdemona; rather, Othello is the cause in the change of their interactions. We can evidence Desdemona's consistency easily with the text. Towards the beginning, Desdemona would clearly speak of her love: "The heavens forbid but that our loves and comforts should increase even as our days do grow" (II.i.186-188). By the end, little has changed though. "They are loves I bear to you" (V.ii.42). As evidenced in the text, Desdemona is consistently focused on her love, a possible positive trait that shows her ability to overlook Othello's sudden, negative change in desposition.
However, there is a question of why Othello changes and how. Stockholder seems to sum up Othello's change well:
His fierce desire for certainty and stability-portrayed in the night-brawl scene as well as in his rage for material proof of Desdemona's innocence-makes him incapable of living relationships in a real world which demand inward trust and patience toward the complex and confusing outer forms of life. (256)
Stockholder's article focuses in on the handkerchief as a symbol for Othello's need for stability. As previously mentioned, even when Othello was being confronted with Iago's injustice, he required the proof of how the handkerchief came into play. In fact, consider how quickly Othello was to believe Iago when the handkerchief even created a grain of questionability to Desdemona's integrity. As Stockholder concluded, Othello's own insecurities inevitably placed too much burden on Desdemona. We can believe this to be true, as Desdemona's explanations for the handkerchief are truly never taken into account by Othello. Though Iago is indeed instrumental in corrupting this world into evil, Othello, never-the-less, showed how he was more or less an anti-hero, since he had far more negative traits and inabilities on his shoulder than Desdemona. In this regard, Othello's difficulties in relationships again delegates responsibility away from Desdemona, showing her still as a positive character in the tragedy that is Othello.
Lastly, there is a matter of connecting Othello to the culture that produced it. Evidence for its placement in the time period comes simply from the number of similar plays at the time. "A surprisingly large number of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays represent or culminate in the murder of a wife, the reason cited almost always being her infidelity" (Vanita 341). Some similar plays mentioned in Vanita's article, such as Women Beware Women, all share a common trait: the contradiction of how relationships are private affairs even if the business is made public in several regards. In real life, this was a common practice of the culture to partake in. Obviously, then, this would also become a common theme in plays and literature. However, as Vanita put it, "A woman's lack of 'parties' and 'alliance' to come to her aid against a murderous husband renders her an easily available victim" (343). Desdemona, despite going to several people and confessing her troubles with Othello, inevitably still dies at the end of the play. Vanita's reasoning, that the onlookers did nothing because of this private practice in relationships, paints the play as a tad more misogynistic undertaking on the surface level. However, in a turn of events Vanita points out what Shakespeare's true intention may have been.
The dramatization of Desdemona's and Emilia's murder challenges some of the most fundamental assumptions of Elizabethan society and of our own-that outsiders should not interfere between husband and wife, and that an adulterous woman deserves death. (350)
Considering the sympathetic nature of Desdemona's character has been established earlier on, it makes sense that this would be challenged. After all, much evidence supports Desdemona is whole-heartedly a victim in the events of Othello. Thus, what Vanita hypothesizes is that Othello may actually be a critique of the tradition. If that is the case, the play can not be considered misogynistic for the simple reason that the tradition itself of privacy in relationships has misogynistic aspects. It also being a critique reflects that the misogynistic undertones were indeed purposeful since their presence was important for demonstrating the horrific nature of the policy.
All in all, Othello did its best to purposefully provide its audience with non-negative women. The plays ultimate goal was to provide us not with two-dimensional women, but fully fleshed out characters which we could analyze. This, in itself, says a lot about the lack of negativity, since most older literature presents us with flat women who provide little interest in analytical conclusions (such as Una in The Faerie Queene or the women of Beowulf). Though the play has not completely escaped some misogynistic traits, it must be remembered above all else that Shakespeare was human. As a human, he was inevitably forced to the give and flow of the culture he grew up in. Never-the-less, he aimed to show, in his own way, that women are people too and that there is much more to a relationship than fidelity. Likewise and in similar regard, Othello's culture when it was written conclusively influenced the negative undertones but still managed to present kind, powerful women. Unfortunately, Othello is only one step in the right direction for total equality between men and women.
1 Please reference Shakespeare's citation for all quotes related to Othello