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Shakespeare/Othello-Presentation of Female Characters

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Question
Hello,

I'm exploring the female characters in Othello and how they supported the ideological expectations of an Elizabethan society (or defied in the case of Emilia). I was wondering what your opinion was on why Shakespeare writes female characters as he did, not just as women following societal expectations, but as multifaceted characters central to the plot?

Also what is your opinion on Emilia's "feminist" speech in Act 4? Do you see it as a true feminist expression or something less ahead of its time than it is often promoted to be?

Thank you so much for your help,
Rachel

Answer
Hi, Rachel!

Many apologies for my delay in answering.  We are in midterm exams here, and I lose touch with ordinary deadlines, it seems, whenever all my classes have to have exams written and graded. Thank you for your patience.

To provide a fair context to you, I should say at the beginning that I tend to be much more of a "Bardolater" than a lot of others, so I do see Shakespeare's plays as being very much ahead of their time. I don't have any proof whether Shakespeare himself believed this way, was writing to be controversial, was writing to make money, was even conscious of how radical his plays were.  *I* tend to think that he himself did think women are more worthy than his culture treated them and that he was aware that he was writing in ways that often rejected the contemporary proscriptions and prescriptions for women, simply because his female characters are often so much more intelligent, human, and humane than their male counterparts. I’m aware that some see those same characters differently than I (and others) do, but I fall very much into the group of feminist critics who see his women characters to be more admirable than the men, on the whole.  In his comedies, especially, the strong female characters seem to me to be greatly superior to the men they marry.

As to the women in Othello , I think that if I consider the full elements of both Desdemona’s and Emilia’s characterizations, neither ultimately supports the expectations of Elizabethan society.  Emilia is rather paradoxical in her feminism, in my opinion. She asserts control over her own body; indeed, she does not even seem to consider that her body (and the decisions about what to do with it) belongs to anyone *but* herself. If she were completely naïve or ignorant, one might think that a conservative ideological point is being made; however, she is clearly educated and highly intelligent.  The paradox is that she is of course willing to use her body in service of her husband's career advancement, which on the surface would seem to support the patriarchal status quo. If we look at this choice a bit more deeply, though, we might see this to be less paradoxical than at first it might seem, since advancing her own career or status was not something open to her at the time. Therefore, the only way to advance her own status was to advance her husband's status (cf. Lady Macbeth), and I am brought back to the startling (for the time period) realization that she sees her body as her own possession to be used as she wishes, for whatever pleases her (not whatever pleases her husband nor society). I even am left with the feeling after her Act 4 speech that if her husband were to ask her to do such a thing for his sake, she might be less inclined to do it than to do it for her own sake, so to speak, but this may be less intrinsic to the Act 4 speech than to my adding in the "stomach" speech in Act 3.

As for Desdemona, I realize that a great many critics see her as more supportive of the status quo in Elizabethan culture’s expectations of women, since she allows Othello to beat her in public and then apparently lies at the end to protect him from punishment.  Personally, I am willing to admit only one of these--the public beating-- and I’ll explain my reasons for denying the second one below.

The rest of her qualities and actions, in my opinion, place Desdemona very much against Elizabethan society’s expectations of her.  For example, she is outrageously bold in finding ways to be alone with Othello, to ask him to tell his story to her (as he relates in his monologue “Her father loved me, oft invited me...”), and in eloping with a man without even allowing her father the option of rejecting Othello’s offer of marriage.  In fact, in Shakespeare’s source material--Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi , which is the single source for the play--the daughter and the Moor *do* ask to marry, and they elope only because her father and mother refuse permission.  Shakespeare even makes sure to mention that she left her father’s house via a common gondolier (a rather severe indictment not only of her boldness but also of Othello’s recklessness, since a mere “taxi driver” could have kidnapped her and sold her into sex slavery quite easily).

Cinthio’s mention of Desdemona’s mother points up a very interesting aspect of Shakespeare’s Desdemona, however, who clearly has no living mother and is therefore given many of the household tasks that only the lady of the house should have had to undertake.  It is clear that Shakespeare’s Desdemona has no mother not only because we never see her but also because Othello describes her (in his monologue about the dinners at Brabantio’s home) as waiting table and caring for the preparations, an office that only the lady of the house ordinarily would fulfill.   Of course, this allows her to see Othello to begin with (since, had her mother been alive, a marriageable daughter would have been locked safely away in her rooms whenever male visitors were in the home), but perhaps more importantly, it gives Desdemona a peculiar double-sided psychological blow, so to speak:  on the one hand, the situation gives her a greater sense of autonomy and independance than any other unmarried daughter of a father *and* mother would feel; in fact, the situation probably even leads her to believe herself to be more mature than she actually is, since her unusual level of worldly experience has occurred *only* in the home and not actually *in* the world.  Yet on the other hand, the situation has likely led her to feel a peculiar sense of responsibility without any of the rewards in status and freedoms (though limited) that being the wife and lady of a great house would have given her.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me that she is enthralled with this man who has traveled the world, has endured and escaped chains, has fought his way to the office of General in a state that sees him as an Outsider. I think that her admiration is not that of a “model Elizabethan young woman” but is that of a young woman who has herself felt like something of a prisoner or outsider without any means of bettering herself in her father’s world that she’s been given access to without hope of entering.  It does not surprise me that she tells him that she “wished heaven had made her such a man,” a phrase that can be taken two ways, certainly, whether or not she is aware of it, herself. Notice also that Desdemona is the one who first makes an awkward pass at him, telling him that “if I had a friend that loved her, / I should but teach him how to tell my story, / And that would woo her” (1.3).  Aside from the fact that this last statement will come back to haunt her (when Othello believes that Cassio comes to tell stories better than he), I think that Shakespeare has built here a character who cannot help but be more bold, more independent, more self-assertive than Elizabethan culture would allow of unmarried young women and yet who does not realize it.   Thus she boldly asks that, as Othello’s wife, she be sent to war with him (no doubt an unusual request), and then as the play progresses, asks Othello to think more kindly of Cassio, and so on.  She is inexperienced, naive, even innocent, and yet she doesn’t realize it.  When Othello tells her that he has “a pain upon my forehead, here” (3.3), he is of course indicating to her that he believes she is cheating on him (he makes the sign of the horns of the cuckold at his forehead as he says the line), but she is too innocent to understand the bawdy slang and answers, “’Faith, ‘tis with watching,” meaning, “you’ve been awake too long and not had enough sleep.”  

A similar miscommunication occurs in the next scene, when he tries to castigate her about her “hot, hot and moist” (3.4) palm, which in folk lore was supposed to be a sign of lustfulness.  She does not catch the reference and replies that her hand is simply youthful, which he interprets to be perhaps a taunt or a partial confession (i.e., that he is too old to satisfy her). So, he continues: “here’s a young and sweating devil here / That commonly rebels. ’Tis a good hand, / A frank one,” meaning, “this hand tells me everything-- that you are lustful and cheating on me.”   For all her boldness and apparent maturity (or perhaps I should say maturity in some arenas?), she doesn’t understand his references, and she thinks only of her rebellion against her father when she married Othello:  “You may indeed say so,” she replies, “For ’twas that hand that gave away my heart.”  This he takes as quite nearly a confession of her affair with Cassio!  Obviously, he becomes angered, since she next changes the subject--“I cannot speak of this.”--but unfortunately, the subject to which she changes their conversation is . . . Cassio.  What a naive and unsophisticated young woman she is, to spend her honeymoon talking about another man!

And so, it’s my belief that when Emilia asks her who killed her, she does not in fact lie on her deathbed (as indeed no sane person would do-- to add a lie to one’s sins, as one is poised to pass on to judgment? Unthinkable!).  “Nobody.  I, myself.  Commend me to my kind lord,” she says--- I did this to myself; I am “kin” (kind) to Othello; we are alike.  We both created our downfalls.  In my opinion, she is recognizing her own participation in her downfall.  She was no victim.  Granted, Iago’s plans and plottings are diabolical, but Desdemona does this all to herself.  However, the wonderful complexity of Shakespeare’s play is that he creates a situation and a character who, I think, urge us to understand how easily this can happen, given the culture of the time, and to feel that she takes upon herself more punishment than we would wish her to have.  This is the essence of Aristotle’s anagnorisis , and I think that this qualifies Desdemona to be a protagonist for this tragedy, an innovation that surely must qualify Shakespeare’s play as being “ahead of its time,” shouldn’t it?

I realize that, from another angle, we could argue that she is bold and refuses to be made into the mold that her culture would have her become, and that therefore she suffers for it-- she must die for such unorthodox beliefs and behaviors.  While I can understand this analysis of Shakespeare’s tragic women, the question I would ask is whether these women who break the cultural molds and suffer for such actions are despicable or are they admirable in their boldness, their unique personalities, their dignity, and their intelligence?  (Of course, what comes to mind in the category of “despicable” is Lady Macbeth, but I urge readers to consider that her counterpart, Macbeth, is despicable, as well.  It is tied to the genre, the De Casibus tragedy, that her and his characters are not admirable.)

I would argue that Desdemona is clearly admirable, particularly when contrasted with Cinthio’s Desdemona who does not undergo any of these miscommunications, of course, since she has a mother and does not encounter any of the split between the (relatively)empowered world of the lady of the house and the purely powerless world of the unmarried daughter.  In Cinthio, the Desdemona character is a victim of a pickpocket Ensign, an inexplicably enraged husband, and a diabolical Wife of the Ensign, who knows all along of the plot to kill her.  The most agency that Cinthio’s Desdemona achieves is to sigh, “I fear greatly that I shall be a warning to young girls not to marry against their parents’ wishes” (Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare , 7: 248).

My own question is:  what caused Shakespeare to read Cinthio and to create *this* unique and deeply detailed, understandable, *human* woman, when all around him were caricatures and servants of the patriarchal mores?  How did he read Cinthio but come up with *this* Desdemona?

I hope I’ve given you some material to ponder.  Most of all, I hope it is worth the wait.  Again, I apologize for the delay.  If you want to dialogue a bit, please write again, by all means.  I will try to do better!

Best wishes!
Dr. T.

Shakespeare

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Dr. T.

Expertise

I can answer questions about Shakespeare's life and times, his plays and poems, the history of criticism and critics' responses to Shakespeare's works, other authors of the time period, the audiences of the time period, Queen Elizabeth I, women of the Renaissance or Early Modern age, history of rhetoric, British drama, etc.

Experience

I have taught Shakespeare, Early Modern literature, Early Modern women's literature, the history of rhetoric, Arthurian literature, and related general literary subjects and many others in university classrooms for more than 25 years.

Organizations
Renaissance Society of America, South-Central Renaissance Society, John Donne Society

Publications
3 books with University Presses, 1 book with HarperCollins Press; articles with: Continuum Press, DLB, Gale Research Shakespearean Criticism and Shakespearean Criticism Yearbook, College English journal, Studies in English Literature journal, CEA Critic journal, Renascence journal, Texas Papers on Language and Literature journal, several others.

Education/Credentials
Ph.D. in British Renaissance Literature and Rhetoric; M.A. in English; B.A. English and Theatre

Awards and Honors
I was editor of a scholarly journal for 10 years; Recipient of my university's Recognition Awards for Research, Teaching, and Service; two Sabbatical awards; graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude

Past/Present Clients
Panelist/Reviewer for National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, DC, 2001, 1997, and 1993; Referee for College Literature, Yale University Press (numerous editions of Shakespeare’s plays), College English, Harper/Collins (1992 to 1995: full-length book manuscripts, including the complete manuscript of The HarperCollins World Reader, Volume I.); Dramaturg for local Little Theatre, 2001–03 (including productions of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Dangerous Liaisons); Dramaturg for various productions in Theatre/Dance Dept at my University (including As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, Measure for Measure, The Tempest)

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