Men and women and their actions, thoughts, and behaviours have been at the centre and focal point in several types of literature. The relationships between one another have been portrayed in various ways, each one representing each gender differently. The representation of women has been a common and controversial subject. The female gender roles depicted in each time period have always been present in literature throughout history. These traditional female roles that society has placed on women have not always been evident. Even with different time periods, there has always been a break in the traditional female roles. Traditional female roles have always represented women as having the subordinate, submissive position in society with respects to the male and being the nurturers and caregivers to children. This stereotypical woman is forbidden to step outside the boundaries of her duties as a woman, nor allowed to speak out against their dominant male counterpart; leaving them to be completely dependent. Some authors, both male and female have characterized their women as breaking from the confined- societal traditions. These women are illustrated as being strong, liberated, independent women in their society.
In the William Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona, the protagonist’s wife is a bold courageous woman that is an example of the break from tradition. In Othello, the tragic hero Othello is a highly esteemed general in the service of Venice. He is depicted as being a Moor; someone not belonging to the society he dwells in and his appearance is different from the Venetians. The play is surrounded by the manipulation and trickery that the antagonist, Iago generates. Desdemona is the loving wife of Othello but although she conforms to her role as the wife, she breaks from society’s traditions and demonstrates her free spirited character. Comparably, the protagonist in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is the woman Hedda Gabler. This modern play is about the life of Hedda and her struggles with scandal, manipulation and issues that arise in society. Hedda Gabler is the new wife of Jürgen Tesman, but is not the typical portrayal of a wife of that time. Her character struggles with her lack of love and happiness. The plot surrounds her relationships with other characters and the events that occur. Although manipulative, she is very autonomous and goes against the stereotypes of the traditional woman of that time. The strong, independent, rebellious portrayal of both Desdemona in Othello, and Hedda Gabler in Hedda Gabler, are a representation of women breaking traditional roles that society has followed throughout history.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona proves to be a very strong liberated individual. Readers and audiences are introduced to Desdemona in the first act as a character disregarding her father, Barbantio’s orders. Desdemona makes her own decision to marry Othello and does not wait nor care for her father’s consent. Shakespeare wrote in the renaissance period dating back to the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, where women in society didn’t disagree with, or disobey their fathers or husbands. This act of disobedience would have not been tolerated at that time. Her father would be making all her decisions and she would not have any say in her husband. She disregards her fathers authority over her and defends her decision by stating that although Barbantio is her father, “here’s my husband, / And so much duty as my mother showed / To you, preferring you before her father, / So much I challenge that I may profess / Due to the Moor my lord” (Shakespeare.1.3.185-89). Not only does Desdemona defend her decision, she is successful with her appeal and her father cannot restrict her decision. She reflects the mannerisms of a free woman, not afraid to speak up for what she believes in.
She is passionate and is open about confessing her love for Othello. Desdemona’s bold disposition is also seen when she stands up for Emilia. She stands up for her when Iago begins to insult Emilia and the whole female gender by uttering repulsive stereotypical jokes. Desdemona does not stand for these accusations thus she replies to Iago saying “Oh, fie upon thee, slanderer!” (Shakespeare 2.1.124) Not only is Iago insulting Emilia, but also his statements are referring to women in general. Desdemona says, “These are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh/ I’th’alehouse” (Shakespeare2.1.136-37). Desdemona is outraged by Iago’s accusations and argues these statements are something a man of lower class and intellect would say. Desdemona fights back against Iago showing she’s not afraid to defend herself and her gender. She is a free spirit that speaks up for herself even though it may not be in the boundaries of societies conventions.
Hedda is equally rebellious and independent in her choices as Desdemona. Hedda is also a newly wed and has just come back from her honeymoon with Jürgen Tesman. In a traditional society, it is custom for a woman to take the last name of their husband. This custom is recognized in societies everywhere, but Hedda becomes the exception. She is the only character that refuses to take her husband’s name. Hedda, being the stubborn rebellious individual does not conform to this tradition because it takes her identity away from her. Ibsen called his play Hedda Gabler to symbolize the break away from the traditions of society. The use of her maiden name symbolizes her independence, which she affirms repeatedly during the play, from her husband and marriage. In act two, Hedda is by her window holding her father’s pistols when Judge Brack come in through the garden saying, “Good afternoon to you, Mrs. Tesman”(Ibsen 981). Hedda replies, raising her pistons and aims them at him, “I’m going to shoot you, sir”(Ibsen 981). She aims the pistols at judge Brack as soon as he calls her by her husband’s name. She becomes defensive and flirtatiously threatening towards judge Brack.
This exemplifies her rebellious nature. Hedda refuses to accept the reality of her position as Jürgen Tesman’s wife. She also refuses to accept that she may be pregnant. Throughout the play, Tesman hints that Hedda is “filling out” and that upsets Hedda a great deal. Hedda rejects that she must ever take the position of a mother. Women in society are the nurturers, the caregivers and the child bearers, but Hedda does not want to carry Tesman’s child, nor be a mother. She is independent and does not want to be the caregiver. When Judge Brack brings this subject to her attention, she becomes quite angry. “But suppose now that what people call -in elegant language- a solemn responsibility were to come upon you? A new responsibility, Mrs. Hedda?” (Ibsen 987). Hedda Then says, “Be quiet! You’ll never see anything of the sort!”(Ibsen987). When Judge Brack and Hedda are alone, he brings up the “responsibility” Hedda has now to be a mother. Hedda systematically rejects her duties as a wife and soon to be mother. Hedda rebels against the society she lives in and because of this she is portrayed as the independent woman rejecting the role society has placed on her.
Tragically, Desdemona dies a courageous death. She demonstrates that she is different in her thinking and in her choices throughout the play. She is a contrast to the women who have conformed to societies standards and stereotypes. But in the male-dominated society her word has no validity when she is accused of being a liar and an unfaithful wife. When Othello hears a lie from Iago that Desdemona has cheated on Othello with Cassio, Othello is outraged and he lets his jealous take over. Iago manipulates Othello and because of this, leaves Desdemona to defend her integrity. She is unsuccessful and Othello smothers her to death. Although he murders her, she demonstrates the bold, courageous woman she’s always been throughout the play. When Emilia asks who was the person responsible for murdering Desdemona, her last words before her death are, “- I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!”(Shakespeare 5.2.125-26). She takes responsibility for her husband’s actions against her. This act of courage would never take place in her society. She defends her husband and this break from tradition shows how different Desdemona was in comparison to a woman confined to society’s traditions.
Like Desdemona, Hedda also dies at the end of the play. Hedda commits suicide because of the scandal she becomes caught in. During the end of the play Hedda’s previous love interest Lovborg is found dead with Hedda’s pistol in his pocket. Hedda previously gave the pistol to Lovborg and hinted that he should commit suicide with it. During the investigation, Judge Brack found Hedda’s pistol in his pocket and confronts Hedda about the matter. Hedda is then faced with the truth that she has been found out and will have to live under Judge Brack’s control. This horrifies Hedda and courageously shoots herself in the temple.
“Shot herself! Shot herself in the temple! Think of that!”(Ibsen 1021). Tesman sees his wife and is in complete disbelief of his wife’s suicide. Hedda made the courageous choice to kill herself because deciding to live under the control of Judge Brack would have been horrendous. Hedda no longer having control over her circumstances is a representation of the traditions of being submissive to a male figure. Hedda refuses to be submissive and unable to make her own free decisions, so she decides to control her life with death. Hedda’s friends and husband are left thinking, “people don’t do such things”(Ibsen 1021). Tesman, Judge Brack and Mrs. Elvsted have never heard of this sort of death before because no one in the society has gone against the traditions of society like Hedda.
In both plays Othello and Hedda Gabler, the woman played significant roles in representing women differently. These women, Desdemona and Hedda Gabler display how opposed to the stereotypes of society their characters are. Their personalities stand out in their societies because they act with bold, independent motives, not belonging to any rules society has placed on them. Their roles as women living outside of the traditions of society are evident with Desdemona’s rebellious choice to marry whom she wants, her fight for love, her courage to take responsibility and Hedda’s fight against the societal roles of being a wife and mother and her courage to refuse to live in a society full of scandal and traditions. Their choices change audience and reader’s views of the typical woman and continue to show women do not have to conform to the roles placed on them by humanity.
Scholes, Robert. “Henrik Ibsen: Hedda Gabler.” Elements of Literature: Fiction, Poetry, Drama. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford UP, 2009. N. pag. Print.
Shakespeare, William, and Russ McDonald. “5.2.125-26, 2.1.136-37, 2.1.124, 1.3.185-89.” The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. New York: Penguin, 2001. N. pag. Print.