Shakespeare’s Othello is often viewed as a tragic love story, and with good reason. The drama is centered on Iago’s success in creating deep mistrust of Desdemona in Othello, even as the girl is devoted to him. That the hero is so tortured by jealousy, to the point of murdering his wife, reinforces the element of tragic love; an innocent young woman is killed and Othello takes his own life in grief, understanding too late the real love she felt for him. At the same time, however, and true to Shakespeare in general, there are other and powerful dimensions to the play. In this Venetian society, the roles of women reflect the fiercely masculine and military culture; Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are objects of possession and sexuality, a reality reinforced by the racist theme underscoring the play. As the following examines, the objectification of women in Othello is central to the masculine agendas of the culture, but just as meaningful is that Desdemona, Bianca, and Emilia have powerful natures all their own.
Before the largely sexualized objectification of the women of Othello may be understood, it is important to note that the play fully represents the Renaissance idea of womanhood. Women of the era were universally believed to be more passionate than men, and consequently more dangerous. It was the male’s obligation to control the woman because this translated to control of his own, wilder impulses, and this in turn encompassed the idea of women as representing sexuality completely (Vaughan, 1996, p. 89). They were the channels by which passionate desires, so antithetical to the welfare of the society, could be satisfied, and this demanded a strict maintaining of wives and lovers as such objects. This is evident in the very beginning, as Iago employs a racist slant to sexuality to enrage Desdemona’s father with the idea of the girl being intimate with Othello: “An old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe” (I, i). Brabantio’s horror at the news of the marriage is certainly founded on racism, but it also goes to his extremely narrow perception of his daughter. Othello is an honored general of Venice, but this is far less important than his color, as Brabantio makes clear to Othello: “Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom/ Of such a thing as thou” (I, ii). Implicit it all of this is the idea that Desdemona is a “prize” worthy of a better man. In Brabantio’s thinking, a black man debases his daughter through intimacy, so this is a father clearly supporting the ideology that his own daughter must comply with the cultural norms of a woman’s role. Put another way, a perceived violation of proper sexual intimacy on her part utterly condemns her in his eyes.
There is also strong evidence that Othello believes the widespread racism surrounding his being and his marriage, and this reinforces his own acceptance of the woman’s role. It is, for example, very interesting that, when Iago discusses the suitors Desdemona ignored to marry Othello, he speaks in a racist manner. That is, he presents that the girl’s choosing to pass by white men in favor of the moor indicates: “A will most rank,/ Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural” (III, iii). What is important here is that Othello has no answer for him, or even real response (Vaughan, 1996, p. 67). This suggests that he accepts the racial bias himself; he cannot explain why a white woman would do this, which translates to both his doubting of his own worth as a man and Desdemona’s love for him. More to the point, the woman is again only a benchmark for masculine identity. He cannot believe that this white woman truly loves him because he is unworthy of being loved by a white woman (Robinson, 2009, p. 91), and Desdemona is then robbed of her own individual being in the process.
It is then all the more interesting how Shakespeare’s women nonetheless have powerful identities and characters. Bianca is seen by all as a courtesan, or the lowly woman who engages in sex with men for personal advantage, but she has a strikingly independent nature. She is devoted to Cassio (Findlay, 2010, p. 381), and she fiercely resents the insults attached to her: “I am no strumpet, but of life as honest/ As you that thus abuse me” (V, i). That this rebuttal is directed to Emilia is also important, as Bianca is essentially identifying that all women in this culture “sell themselves” in one way or another. Desdemona equally has strength, even as so much of the play focuses on the masculine perception of her as existing to satisfy male desire. She seems to never consider such views; they are meaningless because she holds to more fundamental truth. When Othello mocks her in front of others, her concern is only with what is behind his irrational behavior and she reacts with dignity: “I will not stay to offend you” (IV, i). Even as he comes to kill her, she argues and is no willing victim (Margolies, 2012, p. 153). Then, Emilia is a notably dimensional character. Like Desdemona, she has given herself completely to her husband, just as Iago’s blatant dismissal of women as individuals is accepted by her. Nonetheless, when she understands the truth of her husband’s actions, her outrage defies any idea of a woman’s need to be subservient: “Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak/ ‘Tis proper I obey him, but not now” (V, ii). All three women, in fact, reveal their individual and assertive natures when the miserable conduct of the men laves them no choice.
On one level, the women of Othello are uniformly objectified. Emilia bows to Iago’s desires in all things as a wife, Bianca is an object for men’s pleasure, and Desdemona is generally discussed only in terms of a white woman who has violated her social function by choosing a black husband. This is in accord with the Renaissance ideas of women, but Shakespeare does not create characters, male or female, lacking in dimension. Ultimately, then, the largely sexualized objectification of women in Othello is central to the masculine core of the culture, but equally important is how Desdemona, Bianca, and Emilia have powerful natures all their own.
- Findlay, A. (2010). Women in Shakespeare: A Dictionary. New York, NY: Continuum.
- Margolies, D. (2012). Shakespeare’s Irrational Endings: The Problem Plays. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Robinson, E. L. (2009). Shakespeare Attacks Bigotry: A Close Reading of Six Plays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
- Shakespeare, W. (2012). Othello. Retrieved 28 Dec. 2014 from http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/othelloscenes.html
- Vaughan, V. M. (1996). Othello: A Contextual History. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.