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Shakespeare’s portrayal of Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca in Othello comes, generally, in two forms which reflect the prevailing opinion of women in Elizabethan times as mysterious and angelic or, whores, determined to cuckold their husbands. When Othello was written a patriarchal society was the norm. Women had clearly defined roles, as housewives and mothers; they were viewed as inferior, not only physically, but also emotionally. It was thought that they needed a male to protect them, if they were married this responsibility would fall to the husband and if the woman were single, it would be the duty of her father or another male relative.
References to any of the three women, Desdemona, Emilia or Bianca, by the other characters, seems always either to praise them for their virtue and beauty, or else condemn them as whores that manipulate men to achieve their own ends. All three are rejected by their respective partners/husbands; they love them almost unconditionally, even when confronted with indifferent and callous behaviour. They are engaged in unbalanced partnerships: they feel more for their self-centred men than the men are capable of reciprocating.
Bianca serves to represent the latter of the two opinions; she is a courtesan in Cyprus (”Tis such another fitchew’ IV. i. 145). She is a contrast to Emilia and Desdemona as she is not a part of the domestic world in which they belong; this immediately casts her from the kind of femininity that Desdemona is said to possess. She has fallen in love with Cassio and pursues him quite wholeheartedly, however her affections are not returned (‘But that you do not love me. ‘ III. iv. 197), and she is eaten by jealously (‘O Cassio, whence came this? This is some token from a newer friend! ‘ III. iv. 180-1), Cassio and Iago dismiss this as her unruly nature and respond to her in a patronising manner (‘Go to, woman, / Throw your vile guesses in the devil’s teeth / From whence you have them! ‘ III. iv. 183-5).
She is thought by the men to be a sexual being with a tempestuous nature, in need of control and unworthy of regard (‘What do you mean by his haunting of me? ‘ IV. i. 146). Bianca is held with disdain by men for her explicit sexuality, whereas Cassio, who is committing adultery (‘A fellow almost dammed in a fair wife’ I. . 20), receives none. This is a good example of the double standards that existed for women at this time, some of which can still be seen in the modern day, it being more socially acceptable for a man to be promiscuous than a female. Emilia is the representation of the dutiful wife, she is part of the domestic world in which Othello takes place, her marriage is neither happy nor successful, and yet she continues to try to please Iago (for example, by giving him the handkerchief).
Iago’s treatment of Emilia is very poor; he belittles her continuously throughout the play (‘Sir, would she give you so much of her lips / As of her tongue she oft bestows on me / You’d have enough’ II. i. 100-3), with little or no protest on her part. He also suspects her of having an affair with Othello (I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. ‘ I. iii. 385-7), there is no proof in the text that for this, he does not ask her openly in the play about it and it seems to be a rumour that Iago is merely using for the justification of his actions.
Emilia is all too aware that Iago’s behaviour towards her is undeserved, she explains to Desdemona in Act 5 how women often suffer this treatment, and what happens as consequence (‘Then let them use us well: else let them know, / The ills we do, their ills instruct us so. ‘ V. 1. 101-2), this suggests to the audience that although women were legally and religiously bound to a subservient position, not all women behaved in a subservient way.
In the final scene Emilia is quite prepared to reveal Iago’s deceit, however, interestingly, she is fully aware that she is not, by social convention, supposed to, she actually apologises to those present when she disobeys him (‘Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak. / ‘Tis proper I obey him – but not now. ‘ V. ii. 192-3). This disobedience does not pass without penalty, Iago stabs and kills Emilia, proving to the audience just how unbalanced their relationship was.
Desdemona is spoken of by the other members of Othello as saintly, kind and virtuous, Cassio goes so far as to describe her as ‘She is indeed perfection’ (II. ii. 25), and indeed, in Elizabethan times, if a women was not viewed as a whore, she was likely thought to be angelic (Queen Elizabeth I, for example). Shakespeare however was able to characterise women as real people, and take them from their pedestal. The character of Desdemona is often criticised as being weak and mono-dimensional, however in addition to being chaste, loving and virtuous, she is also articulate, stubborn, passionate, practical, and sexually aware. Many of these traits are shown in one of the few moments in the play we meet Desdemona without Othello, in Act II, scene I.
She fully understands Iago’s innuendos and is able to challenge him (‘Come on, assay. ‘ II. i. 120) in a witty and articulate manner. Desdemona’s independence is portrayed explicitly by the fact that she married Othello without her father’s permission (Your daughter, if you have not given her leave, / I say again, hath made a gross revolt,’ I. i. 131). Women were viewed as a commodity, and marriage as more of a business transaction than union of lovers (Faith, he tonight hath boarded a land carrack: / If it prove lawful prize, he’s made for ever. ‘ I. ii. 50-1).
The opinion of women as the property of men is again illustrated when Iago calls to Brabantio that he has been robbed ‘Look to your house, your daughter and your bags! ‘ (I. i. 79), that a person could be grouped alongside a house and money seems shocking in a modern western society, but was obviously the social norm in Shakespeare’s time as Brabantio takes no offence from that statement.
Desdemona is aware of her duty to her father (‘To you I am bound for life and education: / … you are the lord of duty’ I. iii. 183-5) and that now she is married, her obedience falls to her husband (‘I may profess / Due to the Moor my lord. I. iii. 188-9), the independence which Desdemona has shown is not seen as acceptable by her father who wishes to have control over her (and in his mind, so he should – she is his property) ‘Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ / minds / By what you see them act. ‘ I. i. 167-9) and later in the play, the extent of which she is submissive to Othello is stark contrast to these earlier actions, showing the multiple facets of Desdemona’s personality, bound by traditional values yet independent minded and willing to support such non-conformist ideas (for the time) as racial equality.
Iago is a misogynistic character, he is incapable of viewing women as anything other than worthless nymphomaniacs and when referring to them in Othello it is always with a debauched tone ‘You rise to play, and go to bed to work’ (II. i. 115). He cannot believe that Desdemona could possibly love Othello and when talking of the couple does it in the most debasing manner (‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe! ‘ I. i. 7-8), always with sexual inferences and often with reference to animals, believing their love to be no more than lust ‘whereof I take this, that you call / love, to be a sect or scion. ‘ (I. iii. 331-2). A good example of Iago’s firm opinion of Desdemona can be seen in a conversation with Cassio who believes Desdemona to be saintly, ‘She’s a most exquisite lady’, ‘And I’ll warrant her full of game’ (II. iii. 17-18). Although Iago may have an extreme opinion of women, it was not too dissimilar from that of other men in the play.
Men felt that there was something mysterious about women which they could not understand, they inhabited a different world, the domestic world of house and home, and a more physical world (eg. pregnancy, menstrual cycle) than men. It was felt that they were dangerous, temptresses who would lead them astray, needing to be controlled. The women of Othello do not always conform to the norms set by male opinion, but they are often constrained and held back because of them, and the men’s fear that they will disobey sets the scene for much of the tension within the play, resulting in the many tragic deaths.