There seems to be a lot of conflict between male and female characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are Othello’s three female characters. Women’s behavior and self-presentation are heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s representation of Renaissance and Elizabethan society (Amri and Isna 11). Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia all die tragically due to Othello’s loyalty to Iago, swayed by false accusations because he is too focused on one part of the story. When it comes to women in this patriarchal Venetian culture, they are always treated as subjects because men hold them to be their property at all times.
Men and Women in Literature
However, Desdemona is depicted as an aristocratic woman who is respected and revered by her female companions. “…an old black ram is topping the white ewe,” Iago says, in which she is repeatedly referred to as “fair Desdemona” also shows this (Shahwan 161). Act One of Desdemona’s play shows her father’s deception when she marries the man of her choice and denies him any right to choose for her. When Emilia refuses to submit to her husband’s authority in the play’s final act, she acts similarly (Mandelbaum 335). She is a close friend of Desdemona, who employs her as a maid. She stands out from the other women in the play because of her devotion to her husband, Iago, and her contempt for men, whom she views as foolish and perverse. Two male fantasies about early modern wives depicted shrewishness, and another described an idealized subordinate in a patriarchal society. There was no middle ground between shrewdness and submission when it came to the patriarchal worldview. There may be no such thing as good or bad, just as in Othello’s case with skin color. Shakespeare shows his audience that there are no hard and fast rules and good black people and bad white people in the world. As an example of a strong woman, Shakespeare depicts a character who can stand up for herself in the play.
For Othello, the first scene makes it crystal clear that women are not seen as autonomous beings with their thoughts and desires but as property that can be given or taken. There’s a particularly poignant exchange between Brabantio and Iago. Many pronouns refer to Desdemona as her father’s daughter, making it clear that she is his child. While Desdemona’s house, daughter, and bags are all lifeless, she has a rightful place in her father’s possession and can be taken away from him the same way. It makes her seem like a passive bystander rather than someone capable of making her own decisions, such as fleeing her father or being used for the benefit of another person. Not by chance does her father share Iago’s openly misogynistic view of Desdemona, describing her as “abuse, stolen from me, and corrupted” (Shahwan 163) Father of Desdemona tells Roderigo, “In honest plainness, one has heard me say, my daughter, is not for thee” (Shahwan 159). Early modern fathers often had a say in who their daughters married, and Brabantio thinks he has that power here. The defiance of patriarchal expectations is demonstrated by both Desdemona and Othello when they tie the knot without consulting or informing their fathers.
In Desdemona’s case, she is the only child of a wealthy senator, while Othello is the son of a black military general in the United States. To prevent Desdemona from being stolen by Othello in the future, it is assumed she is a treasured possession. “Jealousy was defined as the fear of losing one’s possession, either of household property or people” (Amri & Isna 11). When Desdemona asks Emilia, “Is he… not… jealous?” even though he is supposed to be from the start of the play, he is not, and neither does she (Mandelbaum 341). The sun gave him his sarcastic sense of humor as a child. Iago uses fanciful jealousy to launch an evil plot against Othello to show him that he should have paid more attention to his wife and that Desdemona had betrayed him by marrying Cassio. Early modern men were expected to harbor animosity toward their wives or daughters. Yet, in this play, male jealousy is depicted as a monster. The context suggests this is a critique of the idea of treating women or anyone else as property. Perhaps Shakespeare is using Othello’s downfall and the death of Desdemona at his hands to critique the hierarchy of master possession and demonstrate that it is terrible for everyone in the play. There is a thin line between “household jealousy – the fear of losing one’s possessions – and sexual jealousy – the fear of being duped” (Khadka 651). Even though Othello is the victim of monstrous sexual jealousy, it is not clear if household jealousy is also depicted in a negative light.
In “The Description of Cooke-ham,” Lanyer appropriates and recontextualizes traditionally male spaces, bringing female inclusivity to the end of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Giordano 1). However, her approach is subtle, highlighting both the importance of female-only spaces and the importance of female-only spaces in a patriarchal society while acknowledging cultural signifiers of class and gentry (Giordano 1). As a representation of wealth, status, and authority, the stately country house with its elaborate garden makes for an incredibly full inversion. Those who enter these spaces have a completely different set of expectations when they’re inverted. However, even though the courtly women of Lanyer’s poetry do not leave their homes, they can rediscover their place in the patriarchal society that created the garden. “They agree that the genre uses vast country estates as vehicles to praise or analyze the feudal structure of family property inherited through primogeniture,” the authors write in their paper on country house poetry (Stanavage). This power exchange occurs when Lanyer reverses the Cooke-male-controlled ham house and the Cliffords’ garden structures.
The literary community has given this poem an enthusiastic reception. The debate centers on the poem’s autobiographical elements and Lanyer’s ability to write about the subjects she did. When it comes to “Cook-ham,” a more concise reading of the poem allows for acknowledging both the importance of a semi-autobiographical understanding and teleological moves that embrace female intimacy and religious devotion. It is imperative to view Wroth as an outlier to Lanyer, who is more sacred than Wroth due to her preference for love and Petrarchanism over organized religion (Stanavage). As a result, Wroth’s writings have received much attention because they do not fit with her female contemporaries’ more conventionally religious poetry. Criticism tends to lump female poets together even though gender often distinguishes their work.
Emilia and Desdemona’s characters demonstrate their opposing views on marriage and fidelity in their respective roles. Desdemona is an idealistic romantic who marries for love when it comes to love and loyalty. Before deciding, Emilia is a logical thinker who weighs the advantages and disadvantages of various options. When it comes to cheating on a spouse, the wife thinks it’s best to wait until there is a compelling and apparent reason (Abuzahra & Rami 190). It is important to note that Emilia’s words do not advocate for infidelity but instead express a desire to see a reasonable middle ground reached by society. Women are human beings with needs in addition to being virgins or whores, in contrast to Othello’s binary view of Desdemona.
Othello’s depiction of gender roles demonstrates how women are treated as second-class citizens and how certain stereotypes of men are imposed on them by society as a whole in Othello’s play. Both male and female characters in the play are subjected to gender expectations, valid for both characters in the space. Women in a male-dominated society expect to be seen rather than heard, which is expected (Abuzahra & Rami 196). The men refer to women as “property,” and they are treated as if they are. If they dare to speak out, they will be silenced almost immediately. Ultimately, one woman’s quest to be the “perfect wife” led to her downfall and eventual death, as she could not fulfill her obligations. There is no difference between the two groups regarding the expectations placed on men and women.
To conclude, men are expected to be in charge, especially when taking care of their wives and daughters. When it comes to gaining power, the male characters in the play use their female counterparts as leverage to achieve their objectives. By studying Shakespeare’s plays, one can better understand what happens to people when they try to live up to society’s expectations in both the workplace and the home. As the pressure mounts, men lose their ability to hear the voice of reason and they become consumed by rage and jealousy, which ultimately leads to the deaths of many characters.
Abuzahra, Nimer, and Rami Salahat. “Analyzing Iago’s Speech in Shakespeare’s Othello.” Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics 2.2 (2018): 185-203.
Amri, Siti Hardiyanti, and Isna Maylani. “Paradoxality of Women Positions in Othello by Shakespeare.” JELITA 1.2 (2020): 12-20.
Giordano, Kailey. “A Cooke-ham of One’s Own: Constructing Poetic Persona at Nature’s Expense in Aemilia Lanyer’s” The Description of Cooke-ham” and Ben Jonson’s” To Penhurst”.” Early Modern Culture 13.1 (2018): 1.
Khadka, Prem Bahadur. “Critical Evaluation of ‘Othello’written by William Shakespeare.” PalArch’s Journal of Archaeology of Egypt/Egyptology 18.4 (2021): 643-655.
Mandelbaum, George. “Shakespeare at Work: The Four Closet Scenes.” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 87.2 (2018): 323-350.
Shahwan, Saed. “Gender Roles in The Merchant of Venice and Othello.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies 12.1 (2022): 158-164.
Stanavage, Liberty S. “Questioning Gynocentric Utopia: Nature as Addict in “Description of Cookeham”.” Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality. Vol. 54. No. 1. Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, 2018. 10.17077/1536-8742.2115