Thursday, January 26, 2012

the role of women in "othello"

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In ‘Othello’, women seem to be portrayed as inferior to men in almost every way, and throughout the play there are several instances of misogyny and female abuse. There are three main female characters in the play-Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca. I am going to look at their roles within the play to find out what role women play in ‘Othello’.


Desdemona is the main female character within the play, and the most important. We first hear about her in the first scene, where we find out that she has run away with Othello and married him, against her father’s wishes. This straight away shows us something about Desdemona. She is very stubborn, with a clear idea of what she wants. Because she has not had her father’s blessing with her marriage, she will get no support from him, so if things go wrong, she is out on her own. He will probably disown her. She would have to be stubborn to have gone through with the marriage knowing what Brabantio would do when he found out. She would also have had to have been very sure that Othello was who she wanted to marry, because if he wasn’t right for her and it went wrong, she would have no one to turn to-her father wouldn’t support her.


Desdemona is abused or mistreated by four male characters in the play. Her father Brabantio doesn’t know her well-he calls her “a maiden never bold of spirit”, and talks about her as someone who is frightened of Othello. His description of her is the opposite of the person we see in the senate scene. We can see from this that he doesn’t know what his own daughter is like. He rejects her when she needs somewhere to stay while Othello is gone and the Duke suggests she stay at his house. Desdemona is neglected and rejected by her father. Roderigo wants to have an affair with her-he wants her for sex, and tries to buy her with jewels, treating her like a whore by trying to pay her for sex. Iago uses her mercilessly to further his own ends-he tells Othello to kill her. He treats her like a tool, something to be used for his own ends. Othello hits her, falsely accuses her of having an affair and then doesn’t listen to her protests that she is faithful. In the end Othello kills her.


In the play Desdemona is always in one of two parts. Sometimes she is independent and determined-she goes against her father’s wishes to marry Othello and protects Cassio. At other times she becomes a victim. When Othello calls her “that cunning whore of Venice”, she doesn’t respond, and when he hits her in public, she protests “I have not deserved this” but then goes back to being an obedient wife, defending his authority over her to Emilia at the start of Act 4 Scene .


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I think Desdemona also plays the role of the idealist with her relationship with Othello, thinking that nothing can hurt them as they are in love. This role falls away later on as she realises things have gone wrong.


Bianca has something in common with Desdemona, as male characters in ‘Othello’ mistreat her, like Iago and Cassio. Cassio has some fondness for her, but sees her only as a ‘bauble’, a thing not a person. She has genuine love for Cassio. But he sees himself as one of her ‘customers’ (suggesting she is a prostitute) and this makes the relationship unhappy. Bianca can see that Cassio does not love her-at one point he tells her to go away because he doesn’t want anyone to see her with him. In Act 4 Scene 1 he tells Iago “She haunts me in every place.” like she is an annoying thing that he can’t get rid of. I think this shows he mistreats her by treating her like a thing instead of a person.


Iago also abuses her. When Cassio has just been attacked and injured, he verbally attacks Bianca, saying that she had something to do with the attack on Cassio, “Gentlemen all, I do suspect this trash to be a party in this injury.” Bianca is innocent, but Iago accuses her to save himself.


I think that Bianca plays two roles in the play. To Cassio, she plays the role of the ‘trophy girlfriend’, a pretty bauble he can show off. To everyone else she seems to be the victim. Iago and Cassio both abuse her, and even Emilia abuses her in Act 5 Scene 1 where she calls her a “strumpet”.


Emilia plays a different role from Desdemona, as while Desdemona is a romantic in terms of love, Emilia is very cynical. We see this in Act Scene 4, where she says of men, “they are all but stomachs, and we all but food.” She knows she is just ‘food’ for Iago, kept around until she becomes an inconvenience. She also has a more realistic view of the world than Desdemona. In Act 4 Scene Emilia and Desdemona are talking together about adultery. Desdemona is very na├»ve, and she says to Emilia, “Dost thou in conscience think…That there be women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind?” She can’t believe that there are women who would have affairs. Emilia says, “who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I would venture purgatory for’t.” Emilia is saying she would commit adultery for a prize e.g. to make Iago a ruler.


Iago is obviously a misogynist. In Act Scene 1 he says about women, “You are pictures out of doors, bells in your parlours, wildcats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.” I think Iago’s opinion of women is that they should keep quiet and obey men.


Emilia’s role is a woman who will obey her husband (she gets the handkerchief for him, because she knows he wants it) and thinks that it is right that she obeys him, but she is far more cynical about the role of women in the world. Later on in the play, as Othello accuses Desdemona of adultery, she takes on the role of defending Desdemona, saying she would never have done such a thing.


I think that the women in ‘Othello’ have almost no power-they are always portrayed in relation to the male characters, who can do whatever they like to them-even kill them. If the women are thought to be having an affair, the men get very angry, but if the men were having an affair, I don’t think people would be so shocked.





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