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The audience finds within the Shakespearean tragic drama Othello several female characters who figure into the plot of the play. Their roles are varied and their lives end tragically.
Alvin Kernan’s “Othello: an Introduction” explains Desdemona’s role as a model of faith and chastity for the protagonist who converts to a belief in her after her death:
His willingness to speak of what he has done – in contrast to Iago’s sullen silence – is a willingness to recognize the meaning of Desdemona’s faith and chastity, to acknowledge that innocence and love do exist, and that therefore The City can stand, though his life is required to validate the truth and justice on which it is built. (81)
In the volume Shakespeare and Tragedy John Bayley explains the roles of the two main women characters in the play:
Even the risk of alienating the onlooker from the tragic action produces a corresponding gain: that action and behaviour remain in the play perennially controversial, and the focus of sexual and social awareness sharp and clear. In a production today, the implications of this are usually more interesting than the actual intrigue can be, and a lot of weight is usually put on Emilia’s role as a figure of common sense and common humanity, correcting the romantic excesses of the lovers. [. . .] But no figure in these three tragedies has such a symbolically positional status. Besides, Emilia, for all her virtues, has a stupidity and lack of imagination comparable in its own way to that of her husband; while her views on the sex war, from the feminine angle, are as pungent as his. Certainly the role of women is important, but it is Desdemona alone who, because of her love, can remain unconscious of the tragedy/comedy element, as she does of the polarity between sex and love. (218)
At the outset of the play 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. This is the initial reference to the role of women in the play – the role of wife. In response to the noise and Iago’s vulgar descriptions of Desdemona’s involvement with the general, Brabantio arises from bed.
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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)
Here is seen another role or function of women in the drama – that of comforter for the aged. Brabantio is the old father, and he hates to lose the comforting services of his Desdemona. For the women in Othello, life as they would have it is an uphill battle. Susan Snyder in “Othello: A Modern Perspective” reveals some of the hurdles which women in Elizabethan times had to face in finding a suitable role in society:
The pervasive notion of woman as property, prized indeed but more as object than as person, indicates one aspect of a deep-seated sexual pathology in Venice. [. . .] Fear of women’s sexuality is omnipresent in Othello. Iago fans to flames the coals of socially induced unease in Othello, fantasizes on his own about being cuckolded by Othello and Cassio. In an ideology that can value only cloistered, desireless women, any woman who departs from this passivity will cause intense anxiety. (295)
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)
In other words, he greatly appreciates his Desdemona in the role of wife. 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 cause the young wife to assume a heretofore-unheard-of role for herself – that of barrister. She 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. As a lawyer she does remarkably well. A.C. Bradley, in his book of literary criticism, Shakespearean Tragedy, defines a woman character, Desdemona, as a hero in the play from the very outset, thus assigning the highest type of role not only to Othello but also to a woman:
There is perhaps a certain excuse for our failure to rise to Shakespeare’s meaning, and to realize how extraordinary and splendid a thing it was in a gentle Venetian girl to love Othello, and to assail fortune with such a ‘downright violence and storm’ as is expected only in a hero. It is that when first we hear of her marriage we have not yet seen the Desdemona of the later Acts; and therefore we do not perceive how astonishing this love and boldness must have been in a maiden so quiet and submissive. (191)
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 or reticent in the least. In “Historical Differences: Misogyny and Othello” Valerie Wayne presents Desdemona’s reaction to Iago’s verbal expressions concerning women’s role as sexual objects:
Iago instead claims that four different kinds of women are sexually wanton: either their beauty or intelligence help them to bed, or their ugliness or foolishness get them there anyway. Fair or foul, wise or foolish, women are all whores to him. Desdemona dismisses this ‘miserable praise’ as ‘old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh i’ th’ alehouse’ (136-7), but it is a particularly rank form of such mockery that dilates in every instance upon women as objects for sexual use and then blames them, as whores, for a use constructed by that discourse. (163)
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 assumes another role and becomes a mediator between the general and the dismissed lieutenant:
Be thou assured, good Cassio, I will do
All my abilities in thy behalf. (3.3)
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 freely gives him 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.
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. When Cassio presents Desdemona’s kerchief to her, asking that she remove the stitchery, she becomes suspicious that another woman is in his life. Bianca’s timely presentation of the kerchief later, in the presence of Othello who recognizes it as his gift, makes her contribution to the play a significant one even though she has but a few brief appearances. 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 the only two-dimensional woman character in the drama.
Meanwhile, Desdemona, in her role 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. (4.1)
She retains her dignified image 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 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)
One key role for the heroine of the drama, Desdemona, is to support the general. David Bevington in William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies enlightens us about the hero’s dependence on Desdemona:
Othello’s most tortured speeches (3.4.57-77, 4.2.49-66) reveal the extent to which he equates the seemingly betraying woman he has so depended on for happiness with his own mother, who gave Othello’s father a handkerchief and threatened him with loss of her love if he should lose it. Othello has briefly learned and then forgotten the precious art of harmonizing erotic passion and spiritual love, and as these two great aims of love are driven apart in him, he comes to loathe and fear the sexuality that puts him so much in mind of his physical frailty and dependence on woman. (226)
In a brief verbal exchange between Emilia and her mistress, Desdemona experiences a mysterious premonition, thus introducing another role for women:
Lay on my bed my wedding sheets: remember;
And call thy husband hither. (4.2)
The mistress manifests some undefined psychic ability regarding what is about to transpire on this night. 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 role of women as a spiritual force becomes gradually more dominant towards the end. It is reinforced later by Emilia who sacrifices her own life so that the truth can be known. Othello 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!” The general confesses to Emilia why he did it – because of Iago’s testimony to Desdemona’s falseness. Emilia, formerly of imperfect morality, 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 is aware that she is violating social convention here: “’Tis proper I obey him, but not now.” This violation costs her dearly Emilia’s stunning interrogation and conviction of her own husband as the evil mastermind behind the murder 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.
Thus it is seen that the roles of women are many and varied – and are key to the successful development of the story.
Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1981.
Bevington, David, ed. William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Bradley, A. C.. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Kernan, Alvin. “Othello: and Introduction.” Shakespeare: The Tragedies. Ed. Alfred Harbage. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1964.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.
Snyder, Susan. “Othello: A Modern Perspective.” Shakespeare: Othello. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.
Wayne, Valerie. “Historical Differences: Misogyny and Othello.” The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed Valerie Wayne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.