“I WILL SPEAK AS LIBERAL AS THE NORTH”:
FEMINIST READINGS OF SHAKESPEARE'S OTHELLO
Feminist critics have been analysing how women and society are represented in Shakespeare's plays for several decades, and most of them have come to the conclusion that their portrayal is far from modern feminist ideals. According to Gerlach, Almasy and Daniel, “women [in Shakespeare] as the feminine represented the following virtues which, importantly, have their meaning in relationship to the male; obedience, silence, sexual chastity, piety, humility, constancy, and patience” (Gerlach et al.1996). This Elizabethan conception that women are supposed to be reticent is certainly also apparent in Othello, for instance when Brabantio describes Desdemona as “A maiden never bold of spirit,/ So still and quiet” (Act I Scene 3, 94-95). Brabantio considers his daughter's reluctant and modest nature her most admirable quality, and is thus deeply distraught when discovering that she has acted against his will. Since she is a woman, he expects her to always be obedient to him as her father and authoritative patriarch and is unable to understand “that will confess perfection so would err/ Against all rules of nature” (Act I Scene 3, 99-100). In Brabantio's understanding, women are inherently submissive and he interprets any contrary behaviour to be illogical. Nowadays, gender theorists like Judith Butler have established that gender and the role expectations associated with the sexes are actually a construct of society and not biologically predefined (Butler 1999, 174). Therefore, we cannot assume that being quiet and reserved are female qualities or that assertiveness in women is unnatural – it merely does not fit the stereotypical, unfounded conception of femininity people have in their minds.
This essay aims to analyse the patriarchal system and notions of femininity depicted in Act I Scene 3 of Shakespeare's Othello. Using Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists as a basis for comparison, it will also ask the question if these notions still prevail today and how our understanding of gender and the role of women in society has changed.
Particularly in Act I Scene 3, it becomes very clear that women in the Venetian society Shakespeare set his play in are generally treated as addenda or even possessions of men. As pointed out by Charles Frey, fathers and husbands treat their daughters and wives “as mere property or appurtenances of themselves” (Frey 1980, 295), for instance when Othello declares that he has “ta'en away this old man's daughter” (Act I Scene 3, 78) as if Desdemona was an object that could be stolen or “won” (Act I Scene 3, 94) like a prize. Similarly, Brabantio feels defrauded by Othello. He is “deceived, watchful, enraged to have his object of esteem taken from him” (Neely 1980, 223).
When Brabantio asks his daughter whom she thinks she most “owe[s] obedience” to (Act I Scene 3, 179), Desdemona's response indicates that she feels obliged to subordinate herself to the men in her life as well. She expresses her gratitude towards her father for educating her and calls him “lord of all my duty”, but then dares to speak up against him by explaining that she now has to show duty to her husband (Act I Scene 3, 185 -189). Feminist critics like Joyce Greene MacDonald have previously argued that Desdemona's speech could be interpreted as a feminist act because she “denied her father's authority to choose a husband for her” (Greene MacDonald 2001, 206), which is certainly partly true because, by speaking her mind and openly disagreeing with her father, she clearly defies Elizabethan role expectations towards women. However, it should not be forgotten that Desdemona merely transfers her duty from one male figure of authority to another, and is still just as dependent on men as she was before. Formerly used to address her father, the title “my lord” (Act I Scene 3, 189) is inherited by Othello, which symbolises that he is now the person she belongs and pledges obedience to. Moreover, the fact that Desdemona wishes to show the same duty to Othello as her mother did to her father proves that this process of assigning ones service to a husband is entirely natural to her, and possibly even regarded as an inevitable part of every woman's life.
Even though most women living in Western societies freely choose their romantic partners nowadays, this idea that marriage is essential can still be found today. Adichie explains that being unmarried at a certain age is often viewed as a personal failure which puts a lot of pressure on women still (Adichie 2014, 30). The compulsion to marry might not be as strong as it was in Shakespeare's times, but fact is that women are nonetheless pitied or looked down upon if they do not have a husband to complete them. Additionally, women are to some extent still treated as possessions, which is projected in the language we use to talk about marriage that is still “a language of ownership, not [...] partnership” (Adichie 2014, 30). We also find proof of this language of ownership in Shakespeare, for instance when Othello announces that he wants to “assign” (Act I Scene 3, 285) his wife to Iago's “conveyance”. Usually the verb “assign” is used to refer to the transfer of objects, which underlines that Desdemona is treated similar to an item, that can simply be handed over from one person to another. Further on, the First Senator reminds Othello to “use Desdemona well” (Act I Scene 3, 291) before he leaves. This statement is ambiguous, because although “use” can be understood as synonymous to “cherish” in this context, it also alludes to the conviction that a husband can do whatever he wants with his wife because women are perceived as
mere objects whose primary function is to please men. Generally, it can be assumed that sexual objectification of women is not uncommon in the Venetian society Shakespeare created. Othello himself claims that he does not want Desdemona to come with him “to please the palate of [his] appetite nor to comply with heat” (Act I Scene 3, 262-263), but the fact that he has to explicitly clarify this reveals that only taking women along for sexual purposes seems to be the norm. This can be affirmed when taking a closer look at Iago's soliloquy at the end of the scene, when he accuses Othello of having “'twixt [his] sheets/ done [his] office”, meaning that he believes he has slept with his wife. Strikingly, Iago does not namely mention Emilia, but instead uses the term “office” to make reference to her. Thus, he does not view her as an independent person with her own character and will, but more like a commission or a property that belongs to him alone and that nobody, particularly not Othello, has any right to “make use” of.
One merely needs to take a look at some magazine racks at a supermarket or watch a few advertisements on TV to know that this issue is still not solved today. “Everyday, ordinary women are reduced to their sexual body parts”, said Sarah Gervais, a psychologist who conducted a study in 2012 proving that women are more likely to be processed as individual parts, whereas men are usually seen as a whole. Apart from dehumanising and humiliating women, objectification is also linked to poor mood, body shame and even eating disorders, which makes it more dangerous than many people would expect.
As already briefly broached in the introduction, another aspect that is very prominent in Act I Scene 3 is the stereotype of women as pure, timid and obedient creatures who are unable to make their own decisions. When finding out that his daughter has secretly
married, Brabantio exclaims that Desdemona has been “abus'd, stol'n from me and corrupted/ By spells and medicines” (Act I Scene 3, 60-61). By employing the expression “stolen from me”, he again states that he views his daughter as a property that belongs to him only. He believes that, as her father, he is the one who gets to decide what happens with her and is full of rage when discovering that his authority has been disrespected. The idea that only “witchcraft” (Act I Scene 3, 64) could have made Desdemona fall in love with Othello is undoubtedly sparked by racism, but also denies Desdemona's ability to make appropriate decisions about her own life. Just like Brabantio, the Duke also believes that the girl has been “beguil'd of herself” (Act I Scene 3, 66), not even considering the possibility that she chose to marry Othello of her own accord. Interesting is also that Brabantio's first reaction is to immediately confront Othello instead of speaking to his daughter about the matter and giving her a chance to explain why she decided to act this way. It only occurs to him to ask for her version of the story after Othello suggests to do so, which illustrates how little her opinion, and probably also the opinions of most women in Shakespeare's time, were valued and listened to.
However, this is not a problem exclusive to the Elizabethan era, for women are still silenced and disregarded on a daily basis. Adichie gives an example of this when she writes about her American friend who felt humiliated by her boss because he had “ignored her comments and praised something similar coming from a man” (Adichie 2014, 23). She also gives account of the many situations where waiters in Nigerian restaurants only greeted her male companion and completely ignored her for the sole reason that she is a woman. These are just two of the many instances where women and their voices are made invisible or not taken seriously, yet Adichie also explains that many women do not dare to speak up against these iniquities, for “if you are a woman, you are not supposed to express anger” (Adichie 2014, 21-22). Women are expected to keep quiet and not object to men, and if they do talk back, they are often depicted as evil. As soon as Desdemona stops behaving as he wants her to, Brabantio turns against her and even warns Othello about her alleged skulduggery when he says “Look to her, Moor, have a quick eye to see:/ She has deceiv'd her father, may do thee” (Act I Scene 3, 292-293). He feels so beguiled by Desdemona for choosing a husband without his approbation that his resentment towards her outweighs even the aversion he feels towards Othello. This illustrates that Brabantio takes his role as a patriarch very seriously and that he is unwilling to tolerate it if a woman does confine to this patriarchal system. Even though Desdemona is his own daughter, he completely condemns her the moment he learns about her secret marriage, a reaction that could be explained by Adichie's idea that we, and possibly also the people living in the Elizabethan era, “have been raised to think of women as inherently guilty” (Adichie 2014, 33). Adichie proves this thesis by referring to an incident where a young woman was gang-raped at a Nigerian university, to which several people, both male and female, responded by asking why the girl was in a room with four boys and consequently put the blame on her instead of her rapist. A big part of the reason why victim blaming is still such a big issue is the fact that, in our society, we teach young girls to cover up and not to walk home on their own at night instead of teaching boys to respect women and encouraging awareness of the importance of consent.
In Elizabethan England, a woman's approval was not always considered necessary for having sex with her either. This is also represented in Shakespeare's Venice, for example when Iago says that Roderigo “shalt enjoy” (Act I Scene 3, 258) Desdemona without regarding that she is very unlikely to consent to such a thing. In conversation with Roderigo, Iago also claims that “When she is sated with his body, she will find the error of her choice; she must have change, she must” (Act I Scene 3, 351). Knight writes about these lines that Iago “believes Othello's and Desdemona's happiness will be short-lived, since he puts no faith in the validity of love” (Knight 1949, 117), which certainly explains why he is so sure that their relationship is not going to last. Nevertheless, if one regards his statement from a feminist perspective, it is also noteworthy that it conveys a very specific image of women. By suggesting that Desdemona is going to leave her husband once she is “sated with his body”, he portrays women as wicked, “super-subtle” (Act I Scene 3, 356) beings who prey on men for their own pleasure and abandon them as soon as they are satisfied. He does not only reduce women to their sexuality, but also indicates that they are incapable of experiencing real love towards another person and thus presents them as heartless creatures who do not feel compassion for anyone but themselves.
From analysing the representation of women in Othello, which was naturally strongly influenced by the models of femininity predominating in Shakespeare's Elizabethan England, one can conclude that women living at this time were clearly perceived as human beings of second rank. They were considered possessions of their fathers and husbands whom they were forced to subordinate to, and often treated more like objects than individuals. If they did not act according to the pure and obedient feminine ideal, they were scorned and despised by the men around them and depicted as evil and deceitful, no matter how good their intentions.
Thanks to feminists, who have raised their voices to fight for more rights for women in the past and continue to do so, we have already made considerable progress but, as Beyoncé Knowles-Carter warned, “we need to stop buying into the myth about gender equality. It isn't a reality yet.” (Knowles-Carter 2014). The fact that conditions for women have greatly improved over time certainly does not annihilate the reality that men are still privileged over women in 2017. Even if not as strongly as in Othello, the patriarchy is still very much present in our society and strict gender roles determine the way we conduct ourselves to this day. In fact, this does not only negatively effect women, for men are trapped in a cage of masculinity as well. In Othello, Iago orders Roderigo to “Come, be a man” (Act I Scene 3, 335), which is a phrase that is still used to mock and ridicule boys if they do not behave according to the conception people have of masculinity. Thus, feminism is a cause that people of all genders can benefit from, and we should take the progress we have made already as an inspiration to keep on fighting for more gender equality.
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