Women’s place in society throughout history is changing vastly. In Shakespeare’s Othello, a male dominating cast of approximately twelve men and three women reflects the role of women in the Elizabethan era. All three women are tied to a male in the play. Women in the Elizabethan society, such as Shakespeare’s, were often seen as less essential people and who needed to be taken care of by men, who treated them as less important. In American society, we have moved beyond this old-fashioned approach and women have reached a point where they are treated just as equal to men. Othello presents a good example how women were accepted in the society of the Elizabethan times, women in this play were poorly perceived. They lived in a society where women were considered whores or a good angelic wife. The three women, Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca all have different personalities and roles, although they all share one common trait, they were rejected by their respective partners, despite the fact how much they loved their men
Women in the Elizabethan times had to learn how to manage a household and become skilled in the housewife duties. Women were considered commoners, they were not given the opportunity to attend school or receive any formal type of education. They were taught many languages, such as French, Latin, Italian and Greek by tutors at a very young age. Music and leaning to dance skills were essential elements for a woman to know. A women’s education in those times were “purely of the domestic nature, in preparation of the only real career option for a girl — marriage!”(web). The role of a married woman in these times were expected to bring an amount of money, goods and property to the marriage. Desdemona a beautiful, young, white Venetian, daughter of Brabantio, refuses to marry to any of the rich, handsome Venetian men that everyone expected her to marry.
Therefore, Desdemona silently goes against her father’s expectations and marries into a society that largely disapproves of interracial marriages. She gustily elopes with Othello — an older black man, an outsider to the Venetian society. This upsets her father greatly and he orders to speak to “the Moore” directly. Brabantio felt Othello seduced her by witchcraft and is in disbelief that his daughter would disobey him in such manner. Desdemona speaks very little throughout the play, but when she speaks she makes every word count. She is ordered to speak to her father and prove to him it was her decision to leave and get married. When she confronts her father she vows her love for Othello. Desdemona is honest about her feelings and professes her love for her husband. “…I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband, And so much as my mother showed you before her father, So much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor my lord” (I.iii.187). Elizabethan women were dominated by male members of their family and to disobey them was a sin.
Despite the fact Desdemona was disloyal to her father, the senator, she remained loyal to her dominate male figure, her husband Othello. She portrays the idealistic Elizabethan woman; she manages to be a wonderful housewife and hosts several official receptions for her husband and his people. Desdemona’s reputation is then shattered by the mysterious villain Iago. Men in those times believed women should stay home while it was acceptable for men to go out with their friends and have affairs with other women. In the Elizabethan times, a woman was to accept this type of actions for the love of their husbands.
However, Emilia, the mysterious villain’s wife, and Desdemona’s companion in Cyrus share similar roles. Their husbands believe they have cheated on them. Iago ruins Desdemona’s saintly image of a good wife. Emilia, prior to Desdemona’s accusation of infidelity, asks her if she would ever cheat on her husband, Desdemona states she would never cheat on her husband, “Beshew me if I would do such a wrong, For the whole world (IV.iii.82). It remains unknown in the play if Emilia was ever disloyal to her husband. Later on Desdemona confides in Emilia about how her husbands troubling behavior and how he is treating her because he believes she is cheating on him. “She advises Desdemona not to give the Moor any cause for suspicion and to assure him of her love and loyalty”. (web-wiki) During this era, married and unmarried women were often abused by men.
Unmarried women were looked upon as being distrustful in the Elizabethan times. It was often thought the “single women were thought to be witches by their neighbors.”(web) In which Bianca, a single, unmarried woman in Othello was not portrayed as such she was potrayed as Cassio’s mistresses, one of Othello’s lieutenants. Bianca as well was under the venomous attacks by Iago. Iago planted Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s room purposely so when he took Othello to meet with Cassio he would see Cassio had the heirloom handkerchief. As it was told Cassio and Bianca were caught arguing about the unknown handkerchief by Othello when he steps in the room. “Bianca doesn’t say very much in the play, but she reflects the angers and hurt of many of the characters and the problematic status of women”. (web-thethingis) If a woman in this era wasn’t married and wasn’t in the convent, she needed to find ways to support herself even if it meant being a prostitute. Throughout the play thee three women Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca were known as being promiscuous with other men and were victims of abuse in one way or another.
The women in Othello have different characteristics, yet they all have one common bond. Elizabethan women were raised to be submissive to men; if women disobeyed their men they were whipped. In the case of Othello, Desdemona was submissive, loyal and true to her husband, she suffered abuse from him, until he killed her out of jealousy. Emilia spoke up for what she felt was right, she was a strong, smart, and an assertive woman and spoke against her husband; she too was killed by her husband. Knowing her place in society, Bianca unfortunately conceded to a life of prostitution.
Women and men from the beginning of time have always had conflicting differences. In modern times, women are gaining as much power as men. Although, in many cultures throughout society the image of men being able to do it better still exists. Granted men are built physically different from women and maybe stronger, and are drawn toward physical labor jobs or activities women today give men greater competition in the work force. However, the troubling sexual images of women still exit in today’s modern world, for example a who women sleeps around with several men, she is considered a “slut/whore” as in the Elizabethan times, and if a man sleeps with several women he is considered a “pimp”. There will always be the controversy of how women present themselves in the world as compared to men.
Throughout history and in today’s society, women are constant victims of stereotyping. Certain “rules” have to be followed and certain “ideal” women images have to be kept. Even though women gained some independence, where they are able to vote, work, become educated and take various positions in society, the typical role of women never seems to change. Women are still expected to attend to their families, household duties and husbands. Besides the bigger noticeable changes that have affected the world widely, women have come along ways overtime and will continue to pave the road for the woman in the future. Women will continue to endure differences between men regardless of what day and age or socialization they are being brought up in.
“Elizabethan Women.” William Shakespeare Site-Map. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov 2012.
Kranzberg, Julie. “The Women of Othello.” Associate of Young Journalists and Writes. Universal Journals. Web. 25 Nov 2012.
Shakespeare, Willima. “Othello.” Literature. Ed. X.J. Kennedy. Dana Gioia. Boston: Pearson. 1002-1102. Print.
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