Woman’s Position in Shakespeare’s World (Othello)
William Shakespeare’s play Othello presents won of his strongest female characters in the form of Desdemona, a woman who demonstrates an unusual strength and resolve for her period. The play opens with Othello, a Moor who has achieved the rank of a commanding general in Venice, attempting to defend himself against accusations that he has wronged the daughter of a wealthy Venetian merchant. As an angry crowd incited by Iago begins to gather, Desdemona appears at Othello’s side, taking up a position she will not abandon throughout the remainder of the play. Although she can be considered a heroic figure in her own right, complete with a fatal flaw in her unreasoning, unrelenting dedication to honor, justice and a true cause, she has completed much of her growth process prior to the beginning of the play. This is demonstrated first in her decision to elope with Othello and then in her unswerving convictions. No matter what happens throughout the course of the play, she holds steadfast to her ideas of virtue and honor. There are several instances in which Desdemona is able to show her strength throughout the play, including her decision to marry Othello despite the prevailing thought of her day, her decision to argue in favor of Cassio despite the obvious distress this causes her husband and her strength of character displayed in the face of Othello’s unreasonable and unfounded jealousy.
Desdemona’s individual strength is immediately evident in the play through the simple fact of her secret marriage to Othello. She has done this without the consent of her father, considered almost sacrilege in a time when daughters belonged to their fathers until they were given to a husband already selected and approved by the family. The appropriate sense of responsibility for the age is expressed almost as soon as Desdemona enters the opening scene. She tells her father “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” (I, iii, 182-85). At the same time that she has defied the customs she’s been raised with and circumnavigated her father’s role, Desdemona has also flaunted the racial attitudes of her culture regarding the man of a different color. Despite her upbringing, or perhaps because of the strength of it, Desdemona is as convinced of her loyalty to her husband as she is of her previous loyalty to her father. “Desdemona does not shrink before the Senate; and her language to her father, though deeply respectful, is firm enough to stir in us some sympathy with the old man” (Bradley, 1905, p. 204). Although she must have been frightened of leaving behind all the comfort she’s known in her father’s house as well as the social status this conferred upon her, now gone through her association with the Moor, Desdemona shows no weakness as she faces the crowd.
Desdemona’s tragic flaw, as has been mentioned, is also found within this strength as she continues to honor her promise to Cassio to defend him to Othello. She has told him, “Be thou assurd, good Cassio, I will do / All my abilities in thy behalf” (III, iii, 1-2) and “Do not doubt, Cassio, / But I will have my lord and you again / As friendly as you were” (III, iii, 5-7), making a promise in good faith to a true friend yet fanning the flames of Iago’s insinuations. While this action demonstrates her natural character, “We have already a slight example in her overflowing kindness, her boldness and her ill-fated persistence in pleading Cassio’s cause” (Bradley, 1905, p. 204), the way in which she goes about arguing Cassio’s case takes on the patina of the fearful shrew. “In merging the postures of good wife and shrew, Desdemona indirectly challenges the presumption of their difference enforced in marriage handbooks, homilies, church courts, misogynist pamphlets, and the like” (Bartels, 1996). Her strength is shown in her steadfast loyalty to her convictions regardless of how they might or might not conform with traditions.
As it turns out, Desdemona needs all the strength that she has in order to cope with the unreasoned jealousy of Othello. While she defines herself within the traditional bounds of a good wife and child throughout the play, she also uses these definitions to assert herself within her world. “While Othello uses acquiescence to repress, Desdemona uses it to assert herself, to sanction the expression of her own desires” (Bartels, 1996). However, Iago’s machinations have rendered these skills impotent and have, in fact, turned them against her as far as Othello’s concerned. “Sir, she can turn, and turn, and yet go on / And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep; / And she’s obedient; as you say, obedient, / Very obedient – Proceed you in your tears. – / Concerning this, sir – O well-painted passion!” (IV, i, 246-49). This change in the way the world works has Desdemona confused and she is unable to abandon her source of strength in order to survive. “The strength of her soul, first evoked by love, found scope to show itself only in a love which, when harshly repulsed, blamed only its own pain; when bruised, only gave forth a more exquisite fragrance; and, when rewarded with death, summoned its last laboring breath to save its murderer” (Bradley, 1905, p. 204). Yet even in this regard, Desdemona remains a source of strength. “While she seems, to feminists dismay, to defend Othello to the end (and even after) at her own expense, she actually exonerates herself and implicates him. She presents herself as a loyal wife, willing to sacrifice herself for love. But registered within her narrative of self-sacrifice is what we have been waiting desperately for her to produce – testimony of her fidelity and Othellos error” (Bartels, 1996).
By steadfastly refusing to blame her husband for her own murder even though she still does not understand where his suspicion has sprung from, Desdemona remains strong through the end. This is completely in character for her as it has been traced in her willingness to flaunt tradition to follow her passion as well as in her inability to ignore her promises to Cassio or her duties to Othello. While she remains completely a female character bound by the rules of the feminine, Desdemona is able to convey male strength in everything she does.
Bartels, Emily C. “Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion of Desire.” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900. Vol. 36, 1996.
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 2nd Ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.
Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). New York: Penguin Books, 1969.