Shakespeare gives daunting power to female characters in the classic story of “Othello”. In a time where society viewed women as property whose purpose was primarily to serve and obey men, Shakespeare shows the rebellious strength in women throughout the scenes of “Othello”. In the Elizabethan era the expectations of men and women were clear. Generally, men were to be the bread winner for his family and the women were meant to be mothers and housewives. “Women were expected to be silent, chaste, and obedient to their husbands, fathers, brothers, and all men in general.
Patriarchal rule justified women’s subordination as the natural order because women were thought to be physiologically and physiologically inferior to men”(Roles of Women, literary-articles) Elizabethan women of all classes were raised to believe that they were subordinate to men. Even the protestant church valued this notion, and in order to insure further obedience the protestant leader, John Knox quoted the bible and wrote:
“Women in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man. With such strong societal views on women in the time, the most scandalous thing Shakespeare could have written about was a young Venetian women defying her father and marrying into a interracial union. As well as a brave women who defy’s her husband and tells people of his evil ways. With these strong female characters varying in social status the reader can see the contrast between the way they were expected to behave and how Shakespeare portrayed them to act. Throughout this essay, the expectations of Elizabethan women in the time of “Othello”, will be compared to the actual behaviors of the female characters in the story.
In the Elizabethan era there was clear expectations for women of all social status. Women of a higher class, like Desdemona were only sometimes given the chance to have an education. Girls from noble families were taught by tutors from ages five or younger. The curriculum they were taught consisted of different languages, English and music. However, girls who were not wealthy did not receive education. The only thing they were taught were house hold duties and how to look desirable in hopes of attracting a potential husband.
Weather they were from a rich family or a poor family a girls life goal in the Elizabethen era was to marry as soon as possible, sometimes as young as twelve. “Single Elizabethan women were sometimes looked upon with suspicion. It was often the single women who were thought to be witches by their neighbors. All Elizabethan women would be expected to marry, and would be dependent on her male relatives throughout their life. “(Alchin, L. K. Elizabethan Era, 2005) Iago sets the tone for the view of women in “Othello” also by stating how he feels women should act and what he believes their purpose is in act two scene one.
She that was ever fair and never proud, had tongue at will and yet was never loud, never lack’d gold and yet went never gay, fled from her wish and yet said ‘Now I may,’ she that being anger’d, her revenge being nigh,bade her wrong stay and her displeasure fly, she that in wisdom never was so frail to change the cod’s head for the salmon’s tail; she that could think and ne’er disclose her mind, see suitors following and not look behind. She was a wight, if ever such wight were,—”(Othello, 2. 1. 36-946) With such strong opinions being so apparent and known by everyone , it isn’t at all surprising that society’s views of women were that they were weak and not as important as men. ” Elizabethan society was patriarchal, meaning that men were considered to be the leaders and women their inferiors. Women were regarded as “the weaker sex”, not just in terms of physical strength, but emotionally too. It was believed that women always needed someone to look after them. If they were married, their husband was expected to look after them.
If they were single, then their father, brother or another male relative was expected to take care of them. “(Heather Thomas, Elizabethan,1998-2012) With such strong and strict expectations embedded in girls from such a young age, it can be assumed that a great deal of courage and rebellion would be required in a young women if she were to act out against society and defy the men in her life and act upon her own wishes. Which is exactly what the main female character, Desdemona, did in the efforts of being with the man she loved, Othello.
Desdemona is a very strong character in “Othello”, but some could argue that she ultimately proved to be weak and submissive in the end when her husband Othello murders her out of jealousy. From the beginning of the story “Othello” Desdemona, daughter of Brabantio proved to be a strong female character. In a time when it was considered a sin against ones religion to defy their parents she defied her father by running away and marrying him, a Venetian general, who was also an African American man. After Desdemona’s ather accuses Othello of using black magic to get Desdemona to fall in love with him and marry him, they go to the Duke of Venice to decide their fate. ” Ay, to me. She is abused, stol’n from me, and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks. (1. 3. 64-66) The Duke sees that Desdemona is truly in love with Othello and grants them permission to travel to Cyprus together. Even though Desdemona did such a shocking thing for that time, before this happened she had been a good girl who never did anything improper, and even when she was married to Othello she was a proper wife who obeyed him.
As the story progresses and Othello is poisoned by Iago’s lies of Desdemona and Cassio sleeping together, Othello’s lieutenant, Othello is enraged with jealousy and swears to defend his honor by killing Desdemona and Iago swears to help by killing Cassio. Little does Othello know that Iago is lying to him. When Othello sneaks into Desdemonas room while she sleeps he is conflicted about killing her because he loves her but he is too proud of his honor and is too ashamed of how society will view him after knowing his wife cheated on him to let Desdemona live.
As he tells her to pray before he kills her Desdemona protests a little by saying she hasn’t done anything wrong, and then tries to plea with him to kill her until the next morning. He then smothers her with a pillow. Desdemona’s actions leading up to her death show that her upbringing along with societies expectations of women in the time caused her to die falsely accused at the hands of her jealous husband. Soon after Emilia, Desdemona’s attendant and Iago’s wife come to the door and realizes Desdemona had been smothered.
She runs to her side and witnesses her last words. When Emilia asks her who has done this to her Desdemona replies “Nobody; I myself. Farewell commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell! (5. 2. 133-134) Desdemona shows how loyal and selfless she is, hr husband has just killed her unjustly and she still doesn’t tell Emilia he did it, instead she lames herself. Some could view this as weak but it’s the strongest thing a person can do, to act selflessly and to be at peace. This is why Desdemona proved to be an extremely powerful female character in “Othello”.
When Emilia see’s that Desdemona has been killed, Othello soon after admits that it was him who killed her because of the affair she had been having with Cassio. Emilia is enraged and begins defending Desdemona’s name “Thou art rash as fire, to say that she was false. Oh, she was heavenly true! ” (5. 2. 148-149) Othello gets mad and tells her it was Iago, her husband who had told him of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. Emilia is shocked and after arguing some more Emilia yells for help. Montano, Gratiano and Iago enter.
Emilia tells the men what has happened and explains to them that it was Iago’s lies that made Othello kill Desdemona, Iago tells Emilia to be quiet and go home, but she wont. “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. 207-209) She proceeds to tell them how Iago made her steal Desdemona’s handkerchief, which Iago used to make Othello believe Desdemona was having an affair with Cassio. Iago soon after stabs Emilia and fleas.
Even though Emilia was unknowingly part of Desdemona’s murder she proved herself as a noble and just character by sacrificing herself for the justice of Desdemona’s death. She defy’s her husband and speaks up when her mistress is unjustly murdered. Emilia died so that Desdemona’s death would not be in vain and that again is a true characteristic of a strong person. This is how Emilia proves to be a noble and strong character. In conclusion, Shakespeare portrayed women characters to be truly strong throughout the story of “Othello”.
Shakespeare shows the reader time and time again the true power women have in their compassion, their anger and their selflessness. Even in a time where none of women’s powerful qualities were valued or respected. Emilia and Desdemona are caught in a web of disaster created by the men in their life and suffer at the hands of their selfishness but still die heroically and innocently. Desdemona and Emilia are the true hero’s of this story, they both displayed courage and went against everything they knew and all their social-norms in their efforts to do what was right for them and others.
The strongest thing that Desdemona did was love her husband even when he murdered her, she always loved him even when he was angry. “So would not I. My love doth so approve him that even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns—Prithee, unpin me—have grace and favor. “(4. 3. 18-20) Desdemona loved her husband unconditionally and that is why she is the real hero. Othello gave up on their love when he thought Desdemona was capable of adultery, whereas Desdemona continued loving Othello even though he had killed her. That is why Desdemona is the true strong hero in the story of “Othello”.