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“Othello”: Women Breaking Through Societal Roles Essay Sample

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“Othello”: Women Breaking Through Societal Roles Essay Sample

Women have more rights and freedoms in today’s society than in previous eras. The lines between social classes are more relaxed, expectations have been lowered, and a woman speaking out has become more accepted. Today, women are allowed to do whatever men are. This, however, was not always the case. Take, for example, William Shakespeare’s play Othello. There are two main female characters in the play: Desdemona, Othello’s wife; and Emilia, Iago’s wife. Both of these women fit into a certain social category from the time, each category with its own specific expectations and requirements. Throughout Othello, whether or not these women take action to break through the societal expectations has a great effect on their ends.

Desdemona is one of the many characters whose attitude evolves throughout the play. She begins the play by speaking out against her father, which was generally unacceptable, and ends they play exhibiting blind obedience to her husband’s wishes, which results in her death. Desdemona is the wife of a noble warrior and daughter of a senator, Brabantio, who calls her “…a maid so tender, fair, and happy…/ [one of] the wealthy curled darlings of our nation…” (1.2.85-87) There is much expected of her “wealthy”, elevated class of nobility. Women of the highest class were expected to be beautiful (“fair”), and “never proud”. They had to “have tongue at will”, but never speak too much, and when they were angry, they were not allowed to take revenge on their enemies. They were expected to be able to think for themselves, but “ne’er disclose her mind”, and not pay attention to any courtship besides that of their husbands (2.1.163-172). This is all, however, according to Iago, Emilia’s husband, so it is what men expected from their women, and they expect many things, including loyalty.

One of Desdemona’s principal responsibilities is loyalty to the men in her life, her father and her husband. This is shown in the third scene, where Desdemona says tells us that she senses a “divided duty” between her father and Othello. She feels that to Brabantio, she is “bound for life and education”, and those two things teach her to respect her father, because he is “the lord of duty”. (1.3.210-214) This passage shows us that women in that time period always had a duty to men, and were even expected to perform their duty “divided” or not. Desdemona originally mentions here that her father is the “lord of duty”, putting him above all other possible receivers of Desdemona’s respect. But Desdemona then declares that her real duty is to Othello, saying that her mother showed more duty to her husband, “preferring you [Brabantio] before her [Desdemona’s mother’s] father”, and therefore she would do the same for Othello (1.3.214-218). In these consecutive passages, we learn where Desdemona feels her duty lies, and it is to her husband Othello rather than her father.

It is interesting that the word “duty” is repeated three times in these passages (“Divided duty”, “lord of duty”, and “so much duty as my mother show’d”), emphasizing the importance of the obligations of women to their men. This is also one of Desdemona’s first major moves in the play, to break through the expectations put on her, this one from her father. We see that Brabantio apparently expected that Desdemona would remain dutiful to him and when he is proved wrong, he responds to her angrily with “God be with you! / I have done…I had rather to adopt a child than get it” (1.3.219-221). Brabantio is obviously displeased with her answer, and Desdemona was willing to risk this in order to please Othello. Another example of Desdemona’s initial rebellion is when she says what she thinks of men in general, “…we must think men are not gods, / Nor of them look for such observancy / As fits the bridal” (3.4.169-171).

Desdemona thinks that women shouldn’t expect from men what they truly deserve, because they know they won’t get it, so they should be able to disobey their men that “are not gods”. But later, however, Desdemona becomes unable to disobey Othello, and it results in her demise. Throughout the play, Desdemona becomes increasingly and blindly obedient to anything said to her. For example, when Cassio implores her to talk to Othello, to gain back favor from him for Cassio, Desdemona responds that “I have spoken for you all my best / And stood within the blank of his displeasure / For my free speech!… / What I can do I will; and more I will / Than for myself I dare” (3.4.146-150). She has done as much as she could to be obedient to both Othello and Cassio, respecting both Othello’s wish for her to be silent, and Cassio’s wish for her to speak. It is interesting that in this passage she mentions that “…more I will / Than for myself I dare”.

This means that Desdemona wills more to happen and wants more to happen than she knows she is able to do, based on the restrictions set upon her by both men’s expectations. As the time of her death grows closer, Desdemona grows even more obedient. She begins saying things such as: “I will not stay to offend you” (4.1.277), and “Tis meet I should be used so, very meet.” (4.2.125), saying that it is “meet”, or proper, that she should be in her current situation. Also, in 4.3.7-18, we see Desdemona acting robotic in her obedience. It is a very telling passage in the progression from how Desdemona acted towards men in the beginning of the play and how she acts now. In this passage, we see Othello order Desdemona to go to bed and to dismiss Emilia, her servant, and Desdemona obeys. It is interesting, though, that when she turns around to dismiss Emilia she says it in Othello’s words, that “He hath commanded me to go to bed, and bade me to dismiss you”, and not like it was her own decision. This shows us she has no voice of her own anymore.

Also, when Emilia attempts to protest her decision, Desdemona simply responds that “It was his bidding: therefore…adieu”, which shows us she must believe she has no choice in any matters anymore. And finally, we see Desdemona’s spirit has completely broken, when she says “We must not now displease him”, showing us that she no longer believes in what she said before, that “Men are not gods” (3.4.169), and is now obeying her husband at all costs, even that of her friendship with Emilia and her own life. Lastly, in the final scene before her death, we see many brief interactions between Othello and Desdemona, and her reactions to them. For example in (5.2.37-42), when Desdemona asks Othello if he is planning on killing someone, after he answers that he is, she only meekly says that “I hope you will not kill me”. Also, in 5.2.55-56, Othello commands her to “Peace, and be still!” even when he is talking about killing her, and she obeys, “I will so.”

Finally, in 5.21.61-68, where Othello is telling Desdemona to admit her sins because she is about to die, Desdemona simply says, “Then lord have mercy on me.”, and doesn’t really attempt at any real defensive speech or actions. These quotes show us that Desdemona continues to obey Othello until the very end. If he tells her she is going to die, she accepts it. If he tells her she has to be quiet, she does so. She continues to beg weakly for mercy, as if she doesn’t even really believe in what she’s saying, and thinks that there is nothing she can do to change Othello’s mind, simply because she is a woman, and Othello is a man. She begs, “I hope you will not kill me”, and must know that the decision is obviously no longer up to her. Finally, in her last attempts, she almost whines:

“DESDEMONA: O, banish me, my lord, but kill me not…

…Kill me tomorrow: let me live tonight…

…But half an hour!…

…But while I say one prayer…

OTHELLO: It is too late. (He stifles [smothers] her)

(5.2.98-105)

These last meager attempts for her to save her own life show us much about what Desdemona has become. She realizes that no matter how hard she pleads, she will not be able to change Othello’s mind, and this is a result of her role as a woman in society who has no voice. Desdemona has changed from her free-thinking and free-speaking self that we see in the beginning of the play, when she goes against her father. She is now being treated like an inferior woman by Othello, and is not allowed to defy him. Therefore, as a result of these societal restrictions, she dies without defending herself.

Another one of the women in Othello is Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s servant and confidante. Although she is a woman of the middle class, as a servant she is still held to the main duties and responsibilities of women like Desdemona, of the higher class. Some of these duties include blind obedience to her husband, along with her employers (Othello and Desdemona). Unlike Desdemona, however, Emilia starts out obeying these duties, and then progresses to speaking her mind completely by the end of the play, and dies doing it. In the beginning of the play, Emilia comes across as timid, and is even thought so by others. In 2.1., Iago is talking to Desdemona, while Emilia is present, about how Emilia tends to talk back to him a lot, to which Desdemona responds “Alas, she [Emilia] has no speech”, meaning that Emilia rarely speaks, which confirms Emilia’s attitude of docility.

Iago then insults Emilia directly, in saying “She puts her tongue a little in her heart, / And chides with thinking”, which means that Emilia tends to think horrible thoughts about him rather than saying it outright. Emilia knows the relative silence that is expected of her, so she only stands there and meekly attempts at a comeback, replying just with “You have little cause to say so”. She acts such because she is in the presence of her husband. At this time, she has not yet begun to see a reason to rebel, and is therefore compliant. Here, Desdemona stands up for Emilia and curses Iago, saying “Fie upon thee, slanderer!” (Lines 115-129) This is quite a role reversal from how we see them later. In the next act, we see Emilia just beginning to question her husband. When Desdemona unwittingly drops the handkerchief that Othello had given her, Emilia quickly snatches it up, and brings it to Iago, not knowing what he is going to do with it.

“EMILIA:…I have a thing for you.

IAGO: A thing for me? It is a common thing – …

To have a foolish wife.

EMILIA: O, is that all? What will you give me even now

For the same handkerchief?

IAGO: What handkerchief?

EMILIA: What handkerchief?…

…That which so often you did bid me steal.

IAGO: Hast stol’n it from her?

EMILIA:…Look, here it is.

IAGO: A good wench; give it to me

EMILIA: What will you do with’t, that you have been

So earnest

To have me filch it?

IAGO: [Snatching it] Why, what’s that to you?…

…I have use for it.

Go, leave me”

(3.3.346-368)

This passage is very significant in Emilia’s progression from being completely submissive and obedient to starting to question her husband. When Emilia walks in, Iago immediately insults her again, as he did in the previous passage, and this time she simply dismisses it, as if she is used to it. Then, when she mentions the handkerchief, she appears outwardly offended this when he doesn’t know what she is talking about. After insulting her yet again, Iago snatches up the handkerchief, but Emilia is now going to put up a small fight. She insists on knowing what Iago intends to do with it, but when he refuses to tell her, simply because she is a woman, she drops the subject and obeys him when he dismisses her, after using her for his gain. It is in this passage that Emilia wavers between the line of obedience and rebellion, putting up a small fight but then dropping it again in favor of societal expectations of submission.

Then in the next scene, Emilia says “They [men] are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us. Look you [Desdemona], Cassio and my husband!” (3.4.121-123). Here, Emilia speaks her mind, but in private, and immediately stops when she hears Cassio and Iago coming in. Her perspective on men, however, in this speech is very telling. Its meaning also runs parallel to her encounter with Iago about the handkerchief, in that she is dismissed by Iago as soon as she gives him the thing of use that he needs. This is an example of men “eating” the women “hungerly, and when they are full, they belch us”.

Finally, in the next act, Emilia makes the transition from speaking her mind privately to speaking it publicly. She is only, however, speaking out in this case because she is so emotional about the wrong that has been done to Desdemona. In 4.2.170-174, Emilia is cursing whoever it was that made Othello think Desdemona was unfaithful, not knowing that it was Iago, and Iago attempts to silence her. This time, Iago strongly implores Emilia to “speak within the door”, or speak more temperately and within her place. This says that Iago felt that it was inappropriate for her to release her feelings on the subject, but Emilia pays no attention to him and goes on. So, instead of immediately obeying him and ceasing her talk, Emilia continues to rail against the culprit, saying “O, fie upon them”, referring to whoever did it, until Iago can take it no more and dismisses her. He is calling Emilia a “fool” for speaking out, saying that she should know better, but this will not affect Emilia in the future. Now that Emilia is able to speak her mind publicly, when the time arises for her to speak out against Iago’s plan, she is able to do so. We see this happening throughout 5.2., where Emilia is attempting to unveil and disable her husband’s plan:

“EMILIA: You [Iago] told a lie, an odious, damned lie;

Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie…

IAGO:…Go to, charm your tongue.

EMILIA: I will not charm my tongue; I am bound to speak”

(5.2.216-220)

“IAGO: What, are you [Emilia] mad? I charge you, get you home.

EMILIA: Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak:

‘Tis proper I obey him, but not now.

Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.”

(5.2.231-234)

In these consecutive passages, Emilia is directly fighting back to Iago, saying that she is “bound to speak”, and knows that speaking the truth takes precedence over obedience to her husband. It is interesting, though, that here, even after she has spoken out mildly a few times, she still asks the men for “leave to speak”, or permission to speak. But, we see that she does know that she should no longer obey her husband in this situation, because he has become corrupt and wicked (“Tis proper I obey him, but not now”). Emilia’s final moments, though, are where she speaks out the most. When Iago tells Emilia to “Hold your peace”, Emilia defies him and says, “No, I will speak as liberal as the north”. Iago then tells her to “Be wise, and get you home”, to which Emilia again disobeys, and Iago tries to stab her. In this passage we see that Emilia has come to the point where she is willing to do whatever it takes or take whatever consequences come (“Let heaven and men and devils…all cry shame against me”), as long as she gets to speak out.

Here, Emilia is blatantly and outrightly defying her husband’s wishes. Iago responds by calling her a “villainous whore” (line 274) and saying in front of everybody: “Filth, thou liest!” (Line 277). Finally, in 5.2.300-301, after Emilia has been stabbed by Iago, we see she is pleased with herself for speaking out, because she believes that her soul will rest easy, meaning that she will go to heaven, as she says “So come my soul to bliss, as I speak true / So speaking as I think, alas, I die [She dies]” (5.2.259-266). Shakespeare could have intended this as a kind of “moral-of-the-story”, to warn women in his time against speaking out. It was definitely an intentional ending that Emilia died for disobeying her husband, and was most likely a reflection of the requirements of women in society during Shakespeare’s time. In the end of the play, because she breaks through the expectations of silence and obedience set upon her by society, but she dies as a consequence for speaking out.

The two women in “Othello”, Desdemona, and Emilia, both play very significant roles in the play in showing us what was expected of women, and what was done. And these rules and expectations were, in fact, set in stone. We know this because both Desdemona and Emilia die, except that Emilia dies for speaking out, and Desdemona for not. There were very specific living codes for women, but it seems that they might have condemned these women to death. Women high and middle social classes would be killed for speaking out, but also would not be able to defend themselves against those to whom they owe duty, and would be killed by their silence too. It could be argued that Emilia’s death was more noble than Desdemona’s, because Emilia was “doing the right thing” according to virtue by unveiling Iago’s plan. According to society, however, it was Desdemona who did the right thing by obeying her husband, and Emilia was the one who was doing evil by defying her husband.

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