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In William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Othello, the male characters far outnumber the female ones. This may tend to cause the feminine viewpoint to be shortchanged. Let’s not let that happen – by consideration of same in this essay.
In the essay “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello” Robert B. Heilman discusses
involvement in the play by Emilia, the wife of Iago:
Emilia’s picking up the handkerchief helps advance the action by contributing to Iago’s deception of Othello, but it is also relevant to her character and to Shakespeare’s conception of the modes of wifely devotion and marital relationship (not to mention its relations by contrast with actions of Desdemona and Bianca and of Emilia herself later). (330)
It was Emilia’s gift of the decorated kerchief to her husband that set up Desdemona for murder. Helen Gardner in “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune” talks of Emilia’s outlook on things:
Emilia’s silence while her mistress lived is fully explicable in terms of her character. She shares with her husband the generalizing trick and is well used to domestic scenes. The jealous, she knows,
are not ever jealous for the cause
But jealous for they are jealous.
If it was not the handkerchief it would be something else. Why disobey her husband and risk his fury? It would not do any good. This is what men are like. But Desdemona dead sweeps away all such generalities and all caution. At this sight, Emilia though ‘the world is a huge thing’ finds that there is a thing she will not do for it. By her heroic disregard for death she gives the only ‘proof’ there can be of Desdemona’s innocence: the testimony of faith. For falseness can be proved, innocence can only be believed. Faith, not evidence, begets faith. (145)
At the outset of the play only the male perspective is given: Iago persuades the rejected suitor of Desdemona, Roderigo, to accompany him to the home of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, in the middle of the night. Once there the two awaken the senator with loud shouts about his daughter’s elopement with Othello. In response to the noise and Iago’s vulgar descriptions of Desdemona’s involvement with the general, Brabantio arises from bed. With Roderigo’s help, he gathers a search party to go and find Desdemona and bring her home.
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It is too true an evil: gone she is;
And what's to come of my despised time
Is nought but bitterness. (1.1)
Brabantio is the old father, and he hates to lose the comforting services of his Desdemona. The daughter’s husband Othello expresses his sentiments to Iago regarding his relationship with the senator’s daughter, saying
that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea's worth. (1.2)
Once that Brabantio has located Othello, the father presses charges publicly in order to have Desdemona returned:
To prison, till fit time
Of law and course of direct session
Call thee to answer. (1.2)
The proceedings which take place before the Duke of Venice enable the audience to hear the feminine point of view for the first time in the play. Desdemona is compelled by the situation to stand before the senators and duke, members of the City Council of Venice, and present her side of the story in a convincing manner. She is both respectful of her father and loving of her husband:
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 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. (1.3)
Brabantio’s rage, among other reasons, necessitate that Desdemona live with Iago and Emilia during the Moor’s campaign in Cyprus against the Turks. While awaiting the arrival of Othello’s ship at the seaport of Cyprus, Desdemona shows herself an intelligent, educated debater. She grows tired of Iago’s derogatory comments directed at his wife, and she quite matter-of-factly states her mind: “O, fie upon thee, slanderer!” She continues to critique the ancient’s answers to her questions: “These are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh i' the alehouse” and “O heavy ignorance! thou praisest the worst best.” She is not fearful of the military man, or reticent in the least.
Once that her husband has safely arrived on the island and disembarked, she greets him publicly as if she were herself a diplomat, and later responds before the crowd to his loving address to herself:
The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase,
Even as our days do grow! (2.1)
Later, when Cassio appeals to her after Iago has entangled him in an imbroglio with Roderigo and Governor Montano, which leads to his dismissal by the general, she becomes a mediator between the general and the dismissed lieutenant: “Be thou assured, good Cassio, I will do / All my abilities in thy behalf.” She has a natural inclination to help others, to exercise generosity toward those in need; she is coming, as it were, from a very Christian starting point.
Emilia, the most prominent female character after Desdemona, is not of the caliber of the aforementioned. Emilia makes her appearance in Act 2, defending herself verbally against an onslaught of criticism by Iago: “her tongue she oft bestows on me”; “chides with thinking”; “Bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchen / Saints in your injuries, devils being offended.” Emilia seems not intelligent and witty enough to adequately defend herself, so Desdemona comes to her assistance, calling the ancient a “slanderer.”
Unfortunately Emilia is manipulated by her husband. Iago, in planning his strategy following the dismissal of Cassio, says, “My wife must move for Cassio to her mistress; I’ll set her on”; and she shortly thereafter gives the lieutenant access to Desdemona: “I will bestow you where you shall have time / To speak your bosom freely.” Emilia is sheepish at times: She announces to Desdemona, who is with Cassio, “Madam, here comes my lord,” referring to the Moor. Emilia functions basically as a servant to Desdemona and a dupe for Iago; she does not seem capable of more than this through most of the play. In her simplemindedness she freely gives Iago the handkerchief which he has asked her to steal, knowing quite plainly that the loss would pain her mistress (“but she so loves the token”). Emilia evidences selfishness in this act: “What will you give me now / For that same handkerchief?” Since the climax of the play depends on this one weak act by Emilia, it is obvious that she is as crucial to the plot as is Othello. When her mistress asks her the whereabouts of the handkerchief, Emilia lies: “I know not, madam.” After witnessing Othello’s violent reaction to his wife’s inability to produce the handkerchief, Emilia acts dishonestly by not acknowledging that she gave it to Iago. She appears morally weak, emotionally weak and mentally weak. Fortunately, she changes radically in the final scene when she sees the corpse of Desdemona.
In Act 3 Scene 4, the final female character makes her entrance into the play. She is Bianca, a prostitute by profession, who has fallen in love with a client of hers, Michael Cassio. Bianca is ruled by her passions; she has apparently followed Cassio to Cyprus because she is in love with him and wants to marry him. When Cassio presents Desdemona’s kerchief to her, asking that she remove the stitchery, she becomes suspicious that another woman is in his life: “This is some token from a newer friend.” Bianca resolutely faces off against Cassio when he defends his actions with “Not that I love you not,” by responding, “But that you do not love me!” Bianca’s timely presentation of the kerchief later, in the presence of Othello who recognizes it as his gift to Desdemona, makes her contribution to the play a significant one even though she has but a few brief appearances. Bianca’s simple desire is to be near Cassio: “’Tis very good. I must be circumstanced.” Following supper at Bianca’s, Cassio is waylaid by Roderigo. Iago paints Bianca as a prime suspect in the ambush, and Emilia joins her husband in calling her a “strumpet.” Bianca is very two-dimensional and is the “lowest” lady in the play socially speaking.
Meanwhile, Desdemona, as a loving wife, is aware of the deterioration in Othello’s attitude and shows considerable concern:
Something, sure, of state,
Either from Venice, or some unhatch'd practise
Made demonstrable here in Cyprus to him,
Hath puddled his clear spirit: and in such cases
Men's natures wrangle with inferior things,
Though great ones are their object. (3.3)
Lodovico arrives from Venice to recall the general and to leave Cassio in charge of Cyprus, Desdemona escorts the diplomat to Othello, with whom she still pleads her case on behalf of the fallen Cassio: “Cousin, there's fall'n between him and my lord / An unkind breach: but you shall make all well.” She retains her dignified manner even as Othello calls her “Devil!” and strikes her in the presence of Lodovico; she quietly responds, “I have not deserved this,” and weeps. The audience’s reaction is Lodovico’s: “My lord, this would not be believed in Venice, / Though I should swear I saw't: 'tis very much: / Make her amends; she weeps.” When the general questions Emilia, the latter adamantly supports the consistent virtue of Desdemona:
I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest,
Lay down my soul at stake: if you think other,
Remove your thought; it doth abuse your bosom.
If any wretch have put this in your head,
Let heaven requite it with the serpent's curse!
For, if she be not honest, chaste, and true,
There's no man happy; the purest of their wives
Is foul as slander. (4.2)
Regardless of Emilia’s excellent testimony, Othello calls his wife a “strumpet,” which elicits a pious, levelheaded response:
No, as I am a Christian:
If to preserve this vessel for my lord
From any other foul unlawful touch
Be not to be a strumpet, I am none. (4.2)
In a brief verbal exchange between Emilia and her mistress, Desdemona experiences a mysterious premonition: “Prithee, tonight / Lay on my bed my wedding sheets: remember; / And call thy husband hither.” The mistress manifests some undefined psychic ability regarding what is about to transpire on this night. The two ladies discuss adultery, which Desdemona is too innocent to even think twice about, but which Emilia is willing to engage in if the price is right. From this discussion, in which both women are totally frank, the audience sees that the feminine perspective can be pro and con on the same issue. Robert Di Yanni in “Character Revealed Through Dialogue” examines the dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia, and finds that it reveals the former’s innocence:
In this dialogue we not only see and hear evidence of a radical difference of values, but we observe a striking difference of character. Desdemona’s innocence is underscored by her unwillingness to be unfaithful to her husband; her naivete, by her inability to believe in any woman’s infidelity. Emilia is willing to compromise her virtue and finds enough practical reasons to assure herself of its correctness. Her joking tone and bluntness also contrast with Desdemona’s solemnity and inability to name directly what she is referring to: adultery.(122)
Desdemona then dismisses Emilia for the last time. In Act 5, Cassio’s screams after being wounded by Roderigo spur the general to execute his part of the bargain with his ancient, namely the execution of Desdemona: “The voice of Cassio: Iago keeps his word.” In Scene 2, Othello awakens his wife, whose first concern is for her husband, whose emotions have disfigured his appearance:
Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?
Some bloody passion shakes your very frame:
These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope,
They do not point on me. (5.2)
When the Moor confesses his intention to kill her, she puts spiritual concerns in the forefront before even her very life: “Then Lord have mercy on me!” This spiritual consciousness within the women characters becomes gradually more dominant towards the end of the play. The spiritual orientation is later played out to the fullest extent possible by Emilia, who sacrifices her own life so that the truth can be known.
Othello in a holy rage suffocates his wife. Shortly, Emilia comes upon the scene, and Desdemona revives just enough to tell her friend that she dies a guiltless death, and to say some words of kindness for Othello, “Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!” Her perspective seems saintly, apparently recognizing the good in the general’s intentions. The general confesses to Emilia why he did it – because of Iago’s testimony to Desdemona’s falseness. Emilia is enraged, “O gull! O dolt!” Of imperfect morality, she at this point becomes a beacon of light and truth; she contradicts Iago: “Thou art rash as fire, to say / That she was false: O, she was heavenly true!” and accuses him of lying:
You told a lie, an odious, damned lie;
Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie.
She false with Cassio! (5.2)
Then she accuses him of causing murder: “And your reports have set the murder on.” Emilia’s stunning interrogation and conviction of her own husband as the evil mastermind behind the crime results in Iago’s killing her. Despondent Othello, grief-stricken by remorse for the tragic mistake he has made, stabs himself and dies on the bed next to his wife.
The feminine perspective is varied and inconsistent, but enables the truth to come out and goodness to triumph in the end.
Di Yanni, Robert. “Character Revealed Through Dialogue.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Literature. N. p.: Random House, 1986.
Gardner, Helen. “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from “The Noble Moor.” British Academy Lectures, no. 9, 1955.
Heilman, Robert B. “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello.” Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. Leonard F. Dean. Rev. Ed. Rpt. from The Sewanee Review, LXIV, 1 (Winter 1956), 1-4, 8-10; and Arizona Quarterly (Spring 1956), pp.5-16.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.