Women’s Role in Othello

Desdemona (Naomi Wright) is consoled by Emilia (Jennifer Lines) in OTHELLO at Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival.

Examine the female characters in the play. Do they share a common role in Othello?

In Othello, Shakespeare has not portrayed the women in empowered roles. Even the wife of a general has to demonstrate unquestioned loyalty and submission to her husband. Despite her elevated status as compared to the other female characters in the drama, she is bound by norms. Iago knows she is bound her limits which will not let her escape his infallible plan. The other women in the drama are also bound by their roles in the society and their weaker and secondary status is evident. There are mainly three women playing active roles in the drama – Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca. Desdemona has sealed her own fate when she escaped with Othello. Her life has changed course but she cannot question or reject Othello even when he accuses her of disloyalty. She keeps playing a submissive and loyal wife and at the end courts death unable to find a way out of the relationship that strangles her.

Desdemona could have rejected Othello but then she could not return to her father who rejected her the night she eloped. Right from the outset, she is portrayed as glamorous but meek, simple and innocent.  She has been cultured to be this way and her background does not allow her to be rebellious or to seek control of her life. By the end, her situation is pitiable. She has granted Othello the control of her life and except for the status of being a general’s wife she has lost control of all the other things in her personal life including the liberty to think her own way and be her personal self.

In Shakespeare’s times, this was the norm in the society and the women were expected to remain content with their secondary status and being rebellious was a sign of bad character. Emilia tries to voice her anguish but she is silenced by her husband who is under his skin a worse husband than Othello. Bianca is a courtesan or a prostitute whose job is to entertain the men in her society. While Desdemona and Emilia enjoy respectable positions in their society, she is a stray and its her status in the society that she cannot be bound by relationships which keeps her from finding the love and joy in her life. She is there to be used by others and only till she is full of youth and looks glamorous. Had these women appeared in more empowered roles, the story would have been different and while it would have been easier for Emilia to expose her evil husband, Desdemona too could raise questions regarding the accusations she faces. That way, it would have been difficult for Iago if not impossible to cloud Othello’s mind but poor Desdemona could never know how Iago was blackmailing her husband behind her back. She does not have any choice and it is because Iago has successfully cornered her by making Othello suspicious of her character.

However, women’s oppression in the play is tragic and the deaths of Desdemona and Emilia prove this. Desdemona has displeased her father which leaves her bound by her new identity. She cannot be the same Desdemona again and the role that society plays in her story is even tragic leaving women to the mercy of their men. Whatever happens to her is under Othello’s control. Emilia is loyal to Iago and keeps mum till her conscience makes it impossible for her to stay silent. The second she tries to emerge out of her husband’s shadow and make her voice public, Iago has silenced her. Othello loves Desdemona but more or less treats her as his possession and a trophy since their marriage. She too has grown used to being transported around behind her husband. Despite her elevated status owing to her husband’s rank, she is a woman and cannot escape her fate. Shakespeare has used Bianca to voice these concerns. Desdemona would not speak a word against her husband and therefore is forced to court death. She is bound by her role and in order to prove her fidelity, she will need to speak up which she cannot due to the fear of losing her husband’s love and being called disobedient.

Desdemona’s devotion for Othello is unquestionable and betraying his trust for her is like betraying God. However, this kind of total submission can also turn her into a victim which happens by the end of the drama. At the end, she has sacrificed her life, accepting the circumstances as the outcome of her devotion and loyalty.

That I did love the Moor to live with him
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world. My heart’s subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord.
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,
And to his honor and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him. (1.3.283-294)

Like her husband, Desdemona also owes a duty to her father. Before she became a wife she was a daughter and then she was subject to her father’s control and possession. In her life, this possession gets transferred to her husband when she wilfully accepts in the court that she has married Othello of her own desire and not under pressure. In her relationship with her father too, the status of women as objects under others’ control does not remain hidden. She has already violated the norm when she left her father to marry the Moor. Now, her husband is her only anchor but he accuses her of being rudderless ship after Iago poisons his mind.

My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty.
To you I am bound for life and education.
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you. You are the lord of my duty,
I am hitherto your daughter. But 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. (I.iii.179–188)

In Emilia, the readers can find a partial rejection of these social norms which let the men decide the women’s roles. When Desdemona asks if women can cheat on their husbands she replies if not for the men’s reckless attitude who consider women no more than toys in their hands, no woman would cheat her husband. They impose limits and treat them like senseless animals.  Emilia is fed up but can do little except complaining.

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps;
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us. Or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite.
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them. They see, and
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. ….. Else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

Emilia is frank and honest but that does not help her when she tries to blow her husband’s cover. She too is not allowed to go far from her anchor and has to court death because she dares to go against her husband’s wish. So, the social norms are like a noose around the necks of all the female characters in Othello. This was however, the case of two noble ladies. Bianca’s situation too is not very good either. She is interested in Cassio and grows jealous to hear of his romance. However, for Cassio, his career and duty come first and rest things later, even Bianca.  In Act 5 scene 1, she is called a strumpet by Emilia to which she replies,

I am no strumpet; but of life as honest
As you that thus abuse me”.

She does not find love but is mocked at. Her condition reflects the wounded status of women in her society. Thus, Shakespeare spells out the difficult situation of women in the Elizabethan society. Whether it is Desdemona, Emilia or Bianca, none of the female characters has much control over her fate and life. They all turn out to be mere possessions whose fates are decided by their owners and their society watches them like a vigilante.