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The story in Othello by William Shakespeare is based Othello, a Moorish General employed by the Venetian state, who has married Desdemona secretly. Desdemona is the daughter of a Venetian senator called Brabantio. Iago is an ensign in Othello’s army, who nurses a private grudge against Othello and wants to destroy him. The story revolves around the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, and the way in which Iago executes his plan against Othello. Shakespeare uses the vehicle of Othello to reveal the attitudes and values attached to women during the Elizabethan period.
Portrayal of Women
Using the three female characters of Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca, Shakespeare gives us the common view of women through the eyes of Iago and the view of the nobility through the eyes of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father. In the Elizabethan period the common view of women were that they were instable with the potential risk of being unchaste, as they were morally frail. This is reflected through Iago, in the second Act of the play, when he observes that women wake up to go to play and do their work when they go to bed. (1).
The sexual desires in women were seen as unnatural appetites needing to be satisfied, and hence the portrayal of the potential risk of betrayal of their men by women. The observation that women do their work in bed is the reflection of the commonly held view in the Elizabethan period that women had power over men through their sexual desires and sexuality. They used this to subdue their husbands and other men, thus blinding men to this power that women held over them. It is this common perception of burning sexual desires and sexuality that Iago is able to use in his plans to destroy Othello.
The higher society’s perspective of women is seen through Brabantio. To him his daughters are required to be subservient and obedient. The marriage decision of Desdemona is a betrayal of this requirement of women in higher societies. This perception in the higher levels of society also demonstrates the inferior manner in which women were treated in those days. This inferiority of women concept is not strange as it was the practice followed in many of the older human societies. Shakespeare highlights this feature of Elizabethan society by having all the female characters in the play abused by the male. (2).
There is a contrast in the portrayal of Emilia, with Shakespeare offering a different view of women. Emilia is portrayed as a strong character with having characteristics quite different from Desdemona and Bianca. She is portrayed as realistic, pragmatic, capable of courage, loyal and self sacrificing. Shakespeare also makes Emilia the focus of any feminist views present in the play, when in Act IV Scene iii, when Emilia questions the perception over women’s sexuality as the reason for the fall of women through the words “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults if wives do fall”. (1).
The reason for the portrayal of such a female character is a matter of speculation. Did he intend it as relief of the poor picture of women being painted or was it a reflection of his expectations of the character of a woman, or was it a reflection of the rumblings within women during Elizabethan times of the poor and unfair manner in which they were perceived.
In Othello, through his portrayal of women, Shakespeare gives a clear picture of the way women were held in society during the Elizabethan period.
Shakespeare, William. “Othello, The Moore of Venice”. Shakespeare homepage. 2007. Web.
Gravlee, Cynthia. “The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare”. South Atlantic Review. 45.2 (1981): 119-122.