Gender and race in Othello
In a wide variety of his educative and social works, William Shakespeare characteristically shows gender roles, differences and ethnic discrimination. Othello is one of these works. It is an all time favorite’s play to art audiences. Othello is a play whose characters are put on a judgmental scale depending on their physical appearance and gender characteristics. The main characters’ different ethnicity and background provides a basis for the development of racial conflict and differences. On the other hand, the play contains a complex set of female characters that bring out the theme of gender roles, views and feminism in this account. These two themes of gender and racial conflict are well developed in this play. They are both interrelated and closely connected due to the characterization. In Othello, development of gender differences and gender roles is accompanied by tones and integrated ethnic tensions.
The female gender is a major part of this play. Women behavior is seen as an important aspect of the play. Desdemona is a female character whose behavior is used to illustrate women behavior. Her alleged infidelity and dishonesty is cause of death to many characters within the play among them herself and Othello, her husband. Desdemona and her waiting lady by the name Emilia are protagonists for feminism and sexual ideologies. All the women characters in this play are perceived to be sources of tension and antagonism between feminist and anti-feminist ideologies.
Descriptively looking at these different roles, Desdemona is the wife to Othello and daughter to Brabantio. She is characterized as an ideal woman. The author describes her vividly as beautiful, attractive and virtuous. Cassio describes her as divine, and he goes ahead to tell Iago that she is indeed perfect. Desdemona reveals to her father that she loves Othello and pledges her loyalty to both him and her mother. She is independent in her decisions and self-righteous. She openly declares her love for her husband, and states “our loves and comforts should build up even as our days do grow” (2.1.193-194). Desdemona is hesitant to talk of any feminist ideals about love and relationship. She goes ahead to claim that it’s unforeseen for her to be unfaithful to her husband, and as she puts it, not even “for the whole world” (4.3.82). She submits to her husband and agrees upon everything that he wants. She goes ahead to describe herself as obedient (3.3.97). Othello hits he and she leaves with the argument that if she stays, she will offend him the more. She asks for Iago’s advice on how to win Othello back again.” What shall I do to win him again”(3.2.159). Desdemona maintains her role of a good and submissive wife until her husband murders her. Though it was not her fault, she tells Emilia that she killed herself which is evidently wrong. She willingly admits to a crime that her husband was responsible for committing. She represents ideal women performance throughout the play. She is also portrayed as wise and intelligent through her eloquence. This aspect is brought out through her willingness to defend her husband before her father and profess her love for him. She is, however, submissive and obedient when it comes to her relationship with Othello. She takes the character of a meek wife.
Emilia is another female character in this play. She is the wife to Iago and a major contrast to Desdemona’s character. She slightly resembles Desdemona in her obedience to her husband. She steals Desdemona’s handkerchief gift from her husband because Iago “had more than a hundred times asked her to steal it” (3.3.308-310). She goes ahead to claim that she does “nothing but please his fantasy” (3.3315). Emilia threatens to take back the handkerchief she gave to Iago if he does not use it for a great and acceptable purpose. Judging from this statement, Emilia brings out an aspect of domination in the relationship. At the beginning of the play, Emilia talks back to her husband. This shows her rude character and opposition to submit before him. In another example, Emilia tells Desdemona that she would commit adultery and states that “Nor I neither by this heavenly light; I might do it as well in the dark” (4.2.69-70). She further develops her opinion by stating that husbands should be blamed for their wives’ fall. She gives the huge responsibility placed on the husband to keep the marriage intact and in good terms. Emilia claims that women have the power of revenge against their husbands. She maintains her own opinions different from those of Iago an aspect that shows her interdependence. Her attitude and opinion towards the male gender is cynical through her statement “they are just stomachs and we women are all but food” they eat us and later belch us when full”(3.4.106-110).
On the other hand, male characterization within the play views women in multiple perceptions. Cassio recognizes Desdemona’s behavior by praising her for her politeness and positive character. He believes that she is perfect. This is used to show male’s acceptance of some women behavior. Unlike Cassio, Iago’s perception towards the female gender is somewhat negative. He gives Emilia his description of women as “pictures to be hanged on the door, house bells, and wild cats, players in your marriage and housewives in a man’s bed” (2.3.110). In this case he seems to bring out women as objects of use and obligations to men. This attitude is explored throughout the play as he claims that females are foolish and infidels. This is brought out in his statement where he says, “she never yet foolish that was fair, for even her folly helped her to an heir” (2.2.138)
In addition to Iago’s views, Othello has varied and complex perceptions towards women. Othello is seen to appreciate and praise Desdemona’s behavior throughout the play. He tells Iago that he loves her for her gentleness and her value would not be comparable to anything, not even the sea’s worth. He goes ahead to tell his wife that it’s too much joy for him to speak of what he feels. However, this Othello’s attitude does not go on for a while. It takes a dramatic turn for the worst the moment he believes that Desdemona is unfaithful and an infidel. He becomes rude and harsh to the point of hitting his wife whom he claimed to love so much. He accused her of infidelity and unfaithfulness which ends with him murdering her. This leads to Othello changing his attitude towards women from that of admiration and love to cruelty and hatred. This notion is used to indicate men’ domination over the women. They have the permission and freedom to do onto their wives as they please. To add on that, they have the reasons to discipline their wives and it is their responsibility to tame women’s behavior. It is with this respect Othello hits his wife to the extent of killing her.
There is a vivid antagonism between traditional views and feminist aspects towards women in this play. These are both brought up through the two characters of Desdemona and Emilia. Emilia is assertive, independent on opinions and represents women domination. On the other hand, Desdemona is passive and submissive wife character that represents the ideal woman.
Touching briefly on the racism theme of the play, it is a little bit complex. Some are for racism whereas others are against the vice. Some characters due to his ethnicity background hate Othello. They associate his behavior with him being a ‘moor’. Though his evil deeds are because of Iago’s inciting, his race is used to judge him, and it’s because of his animistic deeds. This represents the egocentric African men who do not reason before acting. Many characters in the play use harsh and cruel words to describe him.
I agree that these two characters of Emilia and Desdemona represent gender differences and roles in the play. Desdemona represents the traditional perception of women and the female fraternity as a whole. Emilia represents the modern viewpoints and independence of a woman. I however, do not agree with traditions and expectations being used to judge on women. Each of them has different opinions different from those of the rest and should be judged as so.
Kolin, Philip C. Othello. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Strickler, Breyan. “Sex in the City: An Ecocritical Perspective on the Place of Gender and Race in Othello.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 12. 2 (2005): 119–137. Print.