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Othello is a classic tragedy that was written by William Shakespeare with gender inequality being one of the most prominent themes explored. The issue of male domination and consequent oppression of women is clearly delineated in the text through the actions and behaviors of the characters. Shakespeare’s portrayal of females in Othello is created according to the expectations and perceptions of those in the Elizabethan society in the 16th and 17th centuries. This paper explores the gender issues in Shakespeare’s tragedy reflecting on the different roles the representatives of both genders played in the Venetian society. Analysis indicates that there is gender inequality in Othello; the males dominate the women who are portrayed as material possessions that have no decision making power or any form of authority over their own lives.
The Classic Tragedy "Othello"
The contemporary 21st century and the Elizabethan societies have a host of parallels because in both of them there are incessant issues of gender inequalities as the women are considered the weaker sex to be dominated by their male counterparts. As Smith aptly notes, in the mentioned periods, the females act as second class citizens (4). Even though considerable progress has been made in the contemporary society towards achieving gender equality, the prevailing state is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s time. The fact that Othello is still relevant to date indicates that gender inequality has subsisted till our century. Through demonstrating and comparing the perceptions and expectations of both sexes in the Elizabethan society, this paper will examine the gender struggles in Shakespeare’s tragedy.
In Othello, one of the major manifestations of the widening power distance between the male and female in the society is observable in the way women were considered as material possession. The females are the weaker gender and are portrayed as material properties to be possessed by the men (Sweetwater). The males in Othello are, in turn, put on a high pedestal and shown as having full control over the womenfolk in the 17th-century Venetian society. At various points in the play, the remarks and actions of the male characters strip the females of their dignity as human beings referring to them, explicitly or implicitly, as their property. For instance, after proposing to Desdemona and winning her love, Iago, working on behalf of Roderigo, tries to convince Brabantio not to allow his daughter, Desdemona to leave with Othello. He puts it as thus, “You’re robbed” (1.1.84). The hero effectively perceives Othello’s taking of Desdemona as robbing of Brabantio. Iago, just like the other men in the society, holds the view that a daughter is the property of the father of the house. Brabantio cements this faulty ideology by calling Othello a “foul thief” (1.2.62). The father proceeds to lament that Desdemona has been “stolen from me and corrupted” (1.3.61). This alludes to the fact that Brabantio did not consider Desdemona as his daughter, but rather as his personal property over which he could exercise control and the fate of which he could determine. According to Crawford, Brabantio represents the power distance between the male and female individuals in the Venetian society with regards to exercising of their wills (165). The men in Othello view themselves as the superior sex.
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Another instance where a perception of women as property is evident is when Othello is grieved by the apparent unfaithfulness of his wife. He states it as, “We can call these delicate creatures ours/ And not their appetites” (3.3.273-274). Othello would have fancied possessing his wife to the full extent of her appetite. The Moor reckons that by failing to prevent Desdemona from undertaking the supposed treacherous act of adultery with Cassio, he lost control over his wife whom he perceives to be his personal property (Smith 24).
A further instance demonstrating the power distance among genders is where Othello is addressing the senators concerning his campaign on Cyprus with his army due to a planned attack by the Turks. When Desdemona pledged to accompany her husband in the fight with the Turk’s invasion, the latter decides to plan her trip. He designates Iago to be responsible for his wife’s safety and transportation. However, the way Othello says it makes an impression that he does not value Desdemona for her human worth. The Moor tells Duke about Iago, “To his conveyance I assign my wife” (1.3.283). Othello clearly considers the escorting of Desdemona as that of any other cargo. His sentiments are devoid of the love and warmth that is expected in a couple that has just been married. One would expect newlyweds to behave in a cozy, lovely manner towards each other and refer to one another, whether in private or public, appreciating their spouse’s human worth and dignity (Wine 104). Moreover, when Othello was leaving for Cyprus, a senator expresses to him that he hopes Othello will “use Desdemona well” (1.3.288). The senator conveys the Venetian patriarchal society’s perception of women as men’s objects to be appropriated as they see fit (Bell 12). The females do not have their own wills. They are there simply to attend to males and be used by the latter as they please.
The Gender Struggles in Shakespeare’s Tragedy
Furthermore, Shakespeare’s Othello portrays the female individuals as products to be purchased (Wine 103). The same does not occur to the male persons. This is clearly demonstrated when Othello tells Desdemona, “Come, my dear love,/ The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue” (2.3.8-9). In this instance, paying the bride's price symbolizes a material purchase. Othello, embodying the whole male gender, regards the payment of dowry to be synonymous with buying any object. Since a person who makes a material purchase receives the right to appropriate and possess the product as one pleases, the Moor expects the same from his marriage with Desdemona. In fact, some scholars such as Smith have gone ahead to suggest that Othello’s sentiments insinuate that he was doing Desdemona a favor by marrying her (24). It is only through marriage that Desdemona could enjoy her sexuality and other marital privileges. Marriage is no longer an institution where two adults consent to live together but is rather an arrangement where a person of the male sex purchases a female and gains the liberty to do with her anything he wants (Sweetwater). Women are akin to slaves and marriage akin to the slave trade as their rights are continually ignored and constantly infringed (Crawford 168).
Iago also follows suit in treating women as men’s property. When he started having an impression that Othello had committed an act of adultery with Emilia, his wife, he equated this infidelity by having his seat in the office occupied by the Moor. The metaphors clearly indicate that Iago did not see Emilia as anything other than his personal property of equal value to an office chair (Bell 5). As part of his revenge plan, Iago decides that he should sleep with Othello’s wife Desdemona. Since they have similar understanding of honor, the Moor is bound to feel robbed of his property just like Iago felt. Iago clearly not only devalues his wife by considering her as his property but also does not take the feelings of Desdemona, a human being, into consideration as he plans his revenge mission (Wine 104). Evidently, the female gender is there to fulfill men’s desires and be at their disposal for their use as material properties (Wine 104).
Apart from being treated as personal property, the female gender unlike the male one is also expected to be submissive. The women in Othello are portrayed as obedient beings. The male persons are the ones in authority. The womenfolk are supposed to follow the men’s directives without question and hesitation. Desdemona’s declaration that she is obedient makes the societal expectations with regards to females’ submissiveness evident (3.3.89). Even when the Moor orders her to go to bed, Desdemona does not express any defiance, instead simply obeying by stating, “I will, my lord” (4.3.9). Normally, a wife, especially, in a new marriage as Desdemona’s and Othello’s, would feel aggrieved that she is being ordered by her husband to go to bed. However, Desdemona does not feel resentful; being a submissive wife, she chooses to obey her husband’s instructions meekly. While Othello symbolizes the dominating men of the Venetian society, Desdemona is the quintessential embodiment of a perfect submissive wife of the Venetian society (Crawford 169; Sweetwater).
Furthermore, unlike their male counterparts, the female persons in the Venetian society were expected to be still and quiet while the men were considered to be vocal and always right (Bell 8). The fact that Emilia finds it necessary to explain the reasons why she is compelled to uncover her husband’s devious actions before the final revealing shows that the women were not permitted to have their own free thought. In fact, it paints a picture of a gender so submissive that even when their male counterparts erred they were not expected to point it out or correct the injustice. Emilia states, “Tis proper I obey him, but not now” (5.2.195). Her actions demonstrate that women were not expected to defy the societal expectations, most of which were patriarchal. Even if she felt compelled to expose her husband’s devious dealings, she still felt that she was doing the wrong thing going against societal expectations. In fact, she was not even sure that her word would count against her husband’s but, nevertheless, she decided to break the norms for the good of the society (Wine 106). Evidently, the women in Othello, unlike their male counterparts, were not allowed to demonstrate defiance or become ambitious without approval from the men.
Another manifestation of gender struggles is the portrayal of all women as sexual perverts. Unlike their male counterparts, who are depicted as honorable persons, the females are shown as ‘easy’ and loose (Smith 20). They are perceived to be morally corrupt. In many instances, the women in Othello are accused of sexual immorality even though there is clear evidence to refute the imputations. Othello, for example, refers to his wife Desdemona as a “whore” (3.3.356). The Moor, following the societal expectations and conceptualization of the women as loose, is quick to affirm his suspicions. Othello does not even seek to refute or verify Iago’s accusations, he readily believes him because of the existing gender stereotyping of females as sexual perverts. The Moor also refers to Desdemona, his wife, as a “subtle whore” (4.2.20) whereas Iago, while trying to discredit his wife’s accusations, refers to Emilia as a “villainous whore” (5.2.227). The male population is quick to brand the women as whores yet they cannot even prove that females were engaged in sexual immorality (Bell 8; Sweetwater). Yet Bianca, representing the womenfolk, is portrayed as very forgiving in situations where the unfaithfulness on the part of Michael Cassio is assumed. The patriarchal society is quick to accuse and convict the women of adultery and absolves the men from the same; yet all the cases are based on circumstantial evidence (Crawford 170).
Moreover, while the male gender is portrayed as honest with regards to their sexuality, the women are depicted as manipulators. They are feared for their sexual charm. Women are perceived as potential temptresses who can use their sexuality to gain undue advantages (Wine 105; Bell 10). While contemplating how he will kill his wife, Othello expresses his admonishments that Desdemona is likely to use her sexuality to deter him from achieving his objective of killing her. He decides that he does not want to “expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide his mind’ (4.1.203-205). Women’s sexuality is considered powerful, capable of having undue influence, but not in a positive sense. The females’ sexual purity and manipulating capabilities are stigmatized and frowned upon unlike in men’s case (Wine 107).
In conclusion, Othello explores a host of gender stereotypes. Shakespeare depicts a story of a negatively stereotyped female gender in Elizabethan society. The major gender issues are apparent in the double standards applied with regards to human worth and dignity, submission, and sexual morality. Any male is portrayed as a superior being whereas any female is depicted as the inferior being, with the worth that can be equated to that of a property. Men are also shown as the representatives of the authoritative gender capable of compelling obedience whereas the female gender is stereotyped as the submissive one in the Elizabethan and Venetian societies. Furthermore, women are perceived as sexual perverts. They are portrayed as extremely gullible and are easily branded as whores and manipulators, a phenomenon that does not manifest itself when the male persons are involved in the similar circumstances. These and many other instances demonstrate the gender issues in the past, some of which exist to date rendering Shakespeare’s tragedy relevant. Unless other literature texts explore the gender issues in society the way Othello does, the status quo with regards to gender inequality will prevail.