Othello and The Duchess of Malfi,’ Deconstruct and Challenge the Sexism of Jacobean Society?

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Sexism can be defined as the prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination that is typically directed towards women. Jacobean women lived in a male-dominated world , which often meant that they were disempowered, subordinate possessions of men. Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ on one hand presents these stereotypical attitudes through the three female characters in the play, Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca, however on the other hand he challenges this view by portraying these women as individuals in their own right who are beginning to break away from male control. Similarly Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ deconstructs Jacobean stereotypes of women by presenting the Duchess as a powerful Renaissance woman who has the qualities of both a man and a woman. In comparison Verdi’s Desdemona does not challenge sexism to the same extent because she presents the stereotypical 19th century woman who remains dutiful to her husband. Although ultimately how far this can be deconstructed depends on the preconceived opinions of the audience.

The expectation of Jacobean women was that they were the possessions of their father until married . Brabantio reiterates the idea that women are virtually “helpless pawns” when he calls Othello a foul thief who robb’d him of his daughter. This suggests that women were seen as the property of their father until they were married and that they were physically unable to live independently from men because they are unable to hold their own opinion. Iago also asserts how Brabantio has ultimate authority over Desdemona when he compares her to his house, a house symbolising ownership, property and possession. When Desdemona goes against her father by marrying Othello she openly challenges the common sexist opinions at that t...

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... fell for men who selfishly used them, destroying both themselves and their partners. Is Othello the real victim in the play or is it the likes of Desdemona and Emilia who, despite battling against sexist misogynistic characters, lose their fight for equality and consequently their lives?

Works Cited: Webster, John. “The Duchess of Malfi” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th edition Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2012. Shakespeare, William. No Fear Shakespeare/ Othello. New York: Spark Publishing, 2003.

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