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The Role of Desdemona in Shakespeare?s Othello
The character of Desdemona represents a woman of the 17th century who surpassed the norms of sexual morality set for Venetian women of that time. When Desdemona left the house of her father, Brabantio, to wed the Moor, Othello, it was the first step in redefining her role as a woman. Desdemona, instead of asking her father?s permission, decided on her own to marry Othello. It seems as though Desdemona was breaking away from the strictness imposed by Brabantio. She denied her father any right in choosing or granting allowance to Othello to marry her. Instead she chose the man who she wanted to marry and felt it unnecessary that her father intervene in their relationship. This act of independence by Desdemona tore away the gender barriers of the Venetian patriarchal society and posed a threat to male authority. The other aspect of Desdemona?s mutiny was the miscegenation in Desdemona and Othello?s marriage. 1The choice of mate made by Desdemona further deviated from the role in which Venetian society would cast her. The traditions of the Venetian society are discovered when Iago speaks to Brabantio and plants both the ideas of miscegeny and loss of power into Brabantio?s mind. Iago cautions Brabantio:
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
(Oth I. i. 88-90)
These lines highlight the fact that in Elizabethan society, Brabantio, like other fathers, considered Desdemona?s body to be his possession while also tapping into the fear of miscegenation that existed in Venice at that time.
2In his book ?Sex in History,? Rattray Taylor describes patriarchal societies in which the power was placed in the hands of men, to be based on father-identifier schemes (77). Taylor explains that children who are father-identifiers, model themselves after their fathers because of their interest in authority and in an attempt to acquire power as their fathers have (314). This can be applied to Desdemona?s rebelliousness. Because Brabantio had such immense power over her, Desdemona may have wanted to gain this kind of power herself. Thus she decided to take her relationship into her own hands and ignored the tradition of receiving her father?s approval. Desdemona was striving to play an equal role with the men in the Venetian society.
The aspect of playing the same role as the men in the Venetian society also explains Desdemona?s marriage to Othello. Instead of Brabantio taking the initiative in the marriage, Desdemona took the initiative in the courtship because she envied the power that her father had over her and the power of Othello?s bravery and masculinity. 3She wished to be a man as brave and as noble as Othello (Holland 253). Desdemona?s actions were not necessarily based on the desire to be a man, but more so a desire to have the equal powers of men. By marrying Othello, Desdemona was showing that she was strong enough and educated enough to break the societal confines of passivity for women (Walker 2). However, we must not assume that Desdemona did not love Othello or that she married him only to define herself as a liberated woman.
Desdemona?s concise statement about her love was revealed with balance and health when she said:
I saw Othello?s visage in his mind,
And to his honours and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
(Oth. III. iii. 250-252)
We can see that she loved Othello for his body and mind, for his reputation and actions, and she consecrated herself to him spiritually and practically and she continued to love him throughout all the events and accusations. Race was not an issue to Desdemona and this was a result of her intelligence and determination to become liberated.
Othello, however, may have been frightened by Desdemona?s aggressiveness as a woman. This, along with the misperceptions brought on by Iago, could have led to his changing views of Desdemona. When Othello and Desdemona are first married, Othello spoke nothing but love for Desdemona. Robert Burns? poem, ?A Red, Red Rose? best represents Othello?s feelings toward Desdemona. The lines: ?As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, / So deep in luve am I / And I will luve thee still, my dear, / Til a? the seas gang dry? (Burns 531), represent hope, faith, and experience. Othello?s love for Desdemona at the beginning of the play was based on this hope, faith and experience. Unfortunately, after Iago?s manipulation, Othello?s love turned to despair, pain, and anger. After Iago led Othello to believe that Desdemona and Cassio were having an affair, Othello then considered Desdemona to be a ? lewd minx? (Oth. III. iii. 475). Othello did not have enough faith in his wife to disregard the accusations made by Iago.
Emilia, however, had a better understanding of Desdemona?s actions than did Othello. As a woman, Emilia was not threatened by Desdemona, but instead felt admiration toward her. 4With no family or friends, Desdemona and Emilia were alone in a military camp, where masculine conceptions of honor defined what women were (McKewin 128). Because both women were aware of their oppression, they both could relate to one another on a level of understanding. Naturally Emilia looked up to Desdemona because she was tired of how Iago treated her. Emilia was not able to take the steps toward liberation like Desdemona did, so she was living the experience through Desdemona. It was not until Emilia was faced with the tragic death of Desdemona that she was able to express her desire to escape from the male-dominated society. It was then that she felt an obligation to Desdemona to break free of Iago?s manipulation and speak the truth.
Cassio?s was also an enthusiastic admirer of Desdemona. Although Cassio wanted only the help of Desdemona in getting his position back as Othello?s Lieutenant, it cannot be denied that he also worshipped her (Coleridge 174). However, Cassio was too loyal to Othello to have any relationship beyond friendship. His admiration came form his acknowledgement of Desdemona?s fearlessness of public forum. Cassio also knew that Desdemona would plead on his behalf simply because she feared the repercussions of his demotion in Venice. Cassio recognized Desdemona?s political concerns. He knew that she would help him get his position back out of love for Othello and his reputation, and through her recognition that Cassio was more qualified than Iago. Cassio knew that Desdemona was constantly striving for her voice to be heard and she demonstrated her intellect through word and deed.
Ironically and tragically, Desdemona?s desire for her voice to be heard fed into Iago?s web of deception (Walker 2). Both Desdemona and Othello were under the impression that Iago was an honest man. Thus, when Othello accused Desdemona of adultery, she went to Iago for help. Naturally Iago, who put the idea of adultery in Othello?s head, told Desdemona that Othello was troubled by business with the state. In this way Iago avoided the revealing of his manipulation. To Desdemona he appeared to be comforting and supporting in her time of confusion. To Othello, Iago had the appearance of a loyal servant by informing him of Desdemona?s ?affair.? These manipulative actions by Iago can be related to William Blake?s ?A Poison Tree.? The lines of Blake?s poem indicate the wrath that one man had for his enemy and how he used his wrath to manipulate his enemy. It reads:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veil?d the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree (531).
Iago?s foes were Cassio, Roderigo, Desdemona, and Othello. He used deceit to make his wrath against them all look as though he was just trying to help them. His actions were like the poison fruit on Blake?s tree that looked so appealing. Iago lured everyone into his trap until they were all under his control. Desdemona, although an intelligent woman seeking liberation, fell into Iago?s trap because she loved Othello and was upset that he had considered her a ?whore.? She was a very trusting person and did not think that Iago would her hurt. Although she was striving to be play an equal role of the men in Venice, at times her sensitivities overpowered her desire to break the gender barriers. In Taylor?s book, he states that children who are father-identifiers still revert to their own type (314). Thus Desdemona was still influenced by matriarchal themes such as love and emotion, rather than power. This is why she had such a strong desire to make amends with Othello. It is also the reason in which she put so much trust into Iago.
Desdemona?s matriarchal sensitivities are like those of the character Frances in Irwin Shaw?s ?The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.? Like Frances, Desdemona wanted to be loved and acknowledged by her husband. When Frances said to her husband, ?I?m good for you,?I?ve made a good wife, a good housekeeper, a good friend. I?d do any damn thing for you? (499), her desire to be acknowledged as a good wife derived from her matriarchal tendencies of sensitivity. Desdemona, like Frances, could not control her feelings of insignificance. Both were striving to be the best wives that they could be and both felt that their roles as wives were being threatened. Therefore, their matriarchal instincts were to do anything in their power to alleviate the tension between their husbands.
This desire by Desdemona to please her husband can also be attributed to her intelligence and liberation. She does not merely listen to Othello?s accusations, but instead tries to explain her situation. She could have very easily let Othello control her but she made her point known and told the truth about her circumstance. Desdemona, just before her death, challenges Othello as she had challenged her father and defends herself with the same straightforward precision she used before the Senate:
And have you mercy too! I never did
Offend you in my life; never loved Cassio
But with such a general warranty of heaven
As I might love; I never gave him token.
(Oth. V. ii. 59-62)
Even in her death, Desdemona proved her liberation by showing that she controlled her own desires. Unfortunately Desdemona, by destroying the gender barriers, sealed her own fate. Because the men of Venice were unable to comprehend Desdemona?s self-control, her death was inevitable. Othello realized that Desdemona?s body and mind were her own domain. Upon this realization, Othello also saw that he had lost his power. By taking charge of her own destiny, Desdemona revealed to Othello that he was destined to lose control. Forced to deal with Desdemona?s rebelliousness and the pressures of Iago, Othello murdered his wife. Sadly, the ultimate price that Desdemona had to pay for her liberation was death.
1. On this point, a more detailed history of the role of women in the 1600s can be found in Taylor, Sex in History 19-71.
2. Taylor offers a further explanation and comparison between the father-identifier and mother-identifier schemes in Appendix A and B of his book Sex in History.
3. The view that Holland has of Desdemona is a realist view that he applies to all the characters in Othello. He later offers an antirealist view as an optional analysis of the characters in the play in his book Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, 246-258.
4. Carol McKewin, ?Counsels of Gall and Grace: Intimate Conversations between Women in Shakespeare?s Plays? offers an essentially positive reading of the female characters and female friendship, but notes that both sexes share in tragic responsibility: the men ?misconceive? the women; the women ?overestimate? the men. This essay is contained in Lenz, Greene, and Neely, eds. The Woman?s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, where a further evaluation of the role of women in Shakespeare can be found in
Blake, William. ?A Poison Tree.? Literature: The Human Experience. Shorter 6th ed. with Essays. Ed. Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz. New York: St. Martin?s, 1996. 530.
Burns, Robert. ?A Red, Red Rose.? Literature: The Human Experience. Shorter 6th ed. 531.
Coleridge, S.T. Coleridge?s Essays and Lectures on Shakespeare and Some Other Old Poets and Dramatists. London: Dent, 1907. 169-177.
Holland, Norman N. Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare. New York: Farrar, 1966.
McKewin, Carole. ?Counsels of Gall and Grace: Intimate Conversations between Women in Shakespeare?s Plays.? The Woman?s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, Carol Thomas Neely. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1980. 117-129.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Literature: The Human Experience. Shorter 6th ed. 571-664.
Shaw, Irwin. ?The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.? Literature: The Human Experience. Shorter 6th ed. 496-500.
Taylor, Rattray G. Sex in History. New York: Harper, 1973.
Walker, Marilyn. ?Desdemona and Desire.? 17 Nov. 1997. Indiana U. 24 April 1999
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