In Othello the protagonists are subject to rigid divisions between male and female expectations and often have to sacrifice themselves for it. The play confronts traditional principles which would have been central to the Jacobean public. Throughout the play Shakespeare outlines the social obligations which drive the characters’ lives as well as destinies. Men are expected to fulfil different roles in the society than women. The play challenges honesty and sexuality and tests moral values of the characters and the ideals of justice.
Although initially presented as often being completely for men and women, visible links between the moralities’ of the two sexes are drawn which forces the Jacobean audience and modern reader to reconsider their moral principles and judgements. In addition, Shakespeare reveals the influence of social standing on the character’s morality, which often overrides that of gender. The differences in sexual morality and justice between men and women are explored in the play.
The importance of sexual interactions is evident in all the relationships between the characters, however the attitude towards sexuality is not the same for men and women. In Scene IV. III during a discussion between Desdemona and Emilia Shakespeare reveals that expressing woman’s promiscuity was unapproved off. Both women agree that they would “do such a deed” but only “i’ th’ dark”. This emphasises that despite its existence, female desire was not to be expressed in the public. The significance of the “dark” highlights female sexuality was condemned, and if it was ever to materialise it had to be hidden.
This contrast with Cassio’s proud and open discussion about his involvement with Bianca. Cassio openly states to Iago that Bianca “hangs and lolls and weeps upon” him, which signifies that men were able to be ungraded about their opinions and sexual affairs than women. However due to her involvement with Cassio Bianca is considered a “strumpet” by the rest of the characters, demonstrating that promiscuity of women was judged differently than that of men. Hence Bianca protest that she is “no strumpet, but of life as honest” is ignored by the rest of the company.
Even Emilia shares that attitude, which proves that it is not just men that participated in the sexual discrimination but also women themselves. It is Othello’s suspicion of Desdemona’s disloyalty that leads to her murder. Othello’s status as a respected soldier and as a man is threatened by the possibility of Desdemona being “false”. Othello tries to justify his actions by claiming that “she with Cassio hath the act of shame / A thousand times committed,”. The fear of cuckoldry is evident in many of Shakespeare’s plays and is often ridiculed.
However in Othello it is used to demonstrate the destructive power of male jealousy and egoism, and the powerlessness of women. Desdemona does not acknowledge Othello’s fault in her death and persuades Emilia to believe that “nobody” but “herself” has done this “deed”. This presents that most cruel and barbaric actions of men could be defended and that women were obliged to accept their husband’s punishment devotedly. The women in the play participate in unbalanced relationships, where a man is often unfairly praised.
Women were expected to be submissive and completely depended on their husbands, as Iago crudely outlines the morals and purpose of a woman’s life is to “rise to play and go to bed to work”, which emphasises their sexual dependence on men. Women were viewed as property; this is evident in the views of the majority of the male characters. Iago’s recognition of Desdemona as a Brabantio’s “daughter” and comparison on her status of Brabantio’s “bags” emphasise that men had complete control over female lives. The inequality is evident in Othello’s and Desdemona’s relationship.
His harsh order: “get you to bed on th’instant” stands out against his wife’s gentle remark: “I will, my lord”. This demonstrates further that husbands had ultimate power over their wives. Two of the women are innocently killed by their husbands because they challenge the position of their husbands. Although Desdemona was loyal and submissive to Othello, he decided to kill her out of his personal fear of her promiscuity. Emilia, on the other hand, was stabbed by Cassio because she wanted to “seek truth” in his actions. The two murders display women as victims of chauvinism and inequality of their rights.
Despite the differences in treatment of women by men in the play, Emilia is the only character in the play that faces social conventions and proves that the two sexes deserve equal morality. In her conversation with Desdemona Emilia fights for equality and states that men should not deserve better fate as “their wives have sense like them”. This comparison would have shocked the Jacobean audience for two reasons. Not only it challenges the position of a male status in the society, but also suggests that it is equal to that of a woman, which challenges traditional views of gender.
Emilia is the voice of an oppressed woman; she challenges deeply established society’s approach and points that “have not we affections, desires for sport and frailty, as men have”. Her evidence of similarly between men’s and women’s desires and weaknesses suggests that morality that they receive should be the same. She suggests these points to Desdemona, but in fact her speech would have been used by Shakespeare to force the audience to question their own views on the matter.
Nevertheless, despite her struggle for equal moralities between mena and women, Emilia acknowledges the discrimination between the two genders and proves that it is male “ills” that “instruct” female behaviour. Her declarations present the unfairness between the two genders which operated at the time. Her proof of the comparison of the characteristics between men and women emphasise further the inequality of their lives and highlights Desdemona’s innocence. Shakespeare demonstrates that is not just differences between gender that influence the character’s morality and sense of justice, but also social standing.
Desdemona admits her duties to towards her husband and is prepared to fulfil his wishes. Now the property of Othello, Desdemona acknowledges that they “must not now displease him”, despite his cruel treatment towards her. This suggests that she is completing her obedient duties of a wife, whereas Emilia openly states that she “would you never seen him”. The contrast of Emilia’s directness suggests that perhaps women of a lower social class were able to be more explicit in their view. Desdemona, having a more important role in the society would have been obliged to follow the social conduct.
Desdemona’s naivety differs further from her servant’s realistic approach about life. Desdemona is in disbelief that “women do abuse their husbands” and are capable of cheating, whereas Emilia pragmatic confirmation that there is “a dozen: and many to th’venturage” suggests otherwise. The disparity in their attitudes towards the matter, suggests that morals between women of different class were different. The distinction between Emilia’s and Desdemona’s morality is not only visible in their outlook, but also in their actions.
Desdemona is ready to submit to her husband and Othello recognises that Desdemona is “obedient, as you say, obedient, very obedient”. The repetition of the adjective is fully representing Desdemona’s approach to her duty as a wife, as she continues to uphold it to the end of her life. Emilia on the other hand, although initially participated in Iago’s wishes , starts to oppose his orders. Her determination not to “charm her tongue” and consider herself to be “bound to speak” reflect that her moral beliefs were different to Desdemona’s.
She feels that it is her moral obligation to inform the rest of the party about Othello’s actions, whereas Desdemona does not want to expose Othello’s fault in her death. Emilia’s behaviour would have been perceived as rebellious and corrupt, because she stood up to her husband, but at the same time approved of by the audience as she reveals the truth about Iago, which is what they would have wanted. By giving Emilia a voice, Shakespeare enables her to articulate the oppressiveness of men and their destructive power on female lives.
The superiority of men in the relationships depicted within the play suggests that the morality and justice by which women and men are judged, could never be equal. In Othello Shakespeare uses different relationships and marriages to articulate the imbalance of justice for men and women in the Jacobean society. Women were expected to reject their sexual desires and remain submissive. The characters were obliged to live their lives according the social conventions and those that do not fulfil their duties would fall.
Desdemona and Emilia are used in the play to present the unquestionable male dominance which operated at the time. Emilia is killed because she directly challenged her husband’s orders as well as status. Despite being a loyal and obedient wife, still shares Emilia’s fate. Their murder emphasises that within society male and female morals were not only different, but often for women almost inexistent. Although Desdemona tried to follow all her moral obligations she still failed in the eyes of a man.
It was Othello who was the judge of her morality and devotion, stressing male supremacy. It is largely the challenges to their dominance which the male characters face that lead to their final fall. The inability to accept female opinion and influence in their lives, men prefer to destroy them than to submit, stressing the lack of equality in the morality between men and women. Contemporary culture is still based on defined feminine and masculine values, which demonstrates that gender inequality is still a major issue even in modern society.