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 and follow the social norms strictly. The other women too play roles that show their weaker and secondary status. There are mainly three women playing active roles in the drama – Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca. Desdemona has decided her fate when she escaped with Othello. Right from the outset she is portrayed as meek, simple and innocent. She has been cultured to be this way. By the end, her situation is pitiable. She has granted Othello the control of her life and except for the status of a general’s wife she has lost control of all the other things. In Shakespeare’s times, this was the norm and the women were expected to remain content with their secondary status. Emilia tries to voice her anguish but is silenced. Bianca is a courtesan or a prostitute meant to entertain the men in her society. While Desdemona and Emilia enjoy respectable positions in their society, she is a stray and the status accorded to her by the society keeps her from finding love and joy.
However, women’s oppression in the play gets to the point of tragic in the form of the deaths of Desdemona and Emilia. Desdemona has displeased her father and she has simply no way out. 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. 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 since their marriage. She too has grown used to be 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 to prove her fidelity she will need to escape its limits, which is impossible.
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 willfully 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 and she must follow the norm.
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. (4.3.97-115)
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 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, is mocked at and reflects the wounded status of women in her society. Thus, Shakespeare spells out the difficult status of women in the Elizabethan society. Whether it is Desdemona, Emilia or Bianca, none of the female characters has much control over its fate and its life. They all turn out to be mere possessions whose fates their owners decide.