Presentation of Women in Othello
The ‘stereotypes’ that this question addresses are initially supported quite well when the female characters are first introduced in the play, however when the play develops we see complexities to the female characters emerge, thus the ‘stereotype’ that each of the character has been assigned does not fit comfortably with the presentation Shakespeare gives us of these characters.
In Desdemona’s case before she even is on the stage we are immediately taken with the idea that she is a goddess, as Iago describes her as a ‘white ewe’, which tries to portray her innocence to Brabantio, as in contrast he describes Othello with the animal image ‘black ram’ who is ‘tupping’ her. This vulgar image not only is intended to strike a chord with Brabantio by trying to portray her as pure , but also illustrates the Elizabethan idea that the colour ‘black’ is associated with the devil and ‘white’ is heavenly, thus we immediately get the impression of what a ‘goddess’ Desdemona is.
This is shown through other men’s presentation of Desdemona as well, as Othello describes her as his ‘soul’s joy’, adding to the heavenly imagery surrounding Desdemona, and Brabantio describes her as his ‘jewel’, showing how precious he sees her as, but also sees her as a possession, hinting that Brabantio is a materialistic character. The contrast that there is between Cassio’s presentation of Desdemona as a ‘most exquisite lady’ and Bianca being a ‘customer’ too illustrates the massive social differences between them, which supports the difference that a ‘goddess’ would have in comparison to a ‘prostitute’.
Additionally, the fact that Cassio seems embarrassed by Bianca also supports her role as a ‘prostitute’ as clearly being a ‘gentleman’ there is a massive social gap between the two of them. Iago also recognizes Desdemona’s ‘virtue’, however unlike the other male characters who see her as an idealized figure, Iago decides to turn her ‘virtues into pitch’. This illustrates how Iago shows nothing but contempt for honesty and innocence as he tries to pervert it, and also how much of an expert manipulator he is in by turning well-regarded traits against them.
He also does this to Othello, by noting ‘The Moor has a free and honest nature’ and decides to twist this by pouring ‘poison’ (lies) into his ear, making Othello turn against her. This is shown very well in the same act when both Desdemona and Iago are trying to win Othello’s mind, Desdemona by convincing him to take Cassio back as his Lieutenant, Iago by convincing him that Desdemona is an adulterer. Ironically, Desdemona has Cassio’s best intentions at heart, so she makes no hesitations in nagging Othello and refusing to back down in the argument, which has the opposite effect as Othello does not want to hear her argument.
In contrast, Iago merely pretends to have other people’s intentions at heart and says very little, making Othello ask the questions ‘lie? Lie with her? ‘ yet Othello believes Iago’s case entirely. This again shows how much of a ‘goddess’ Desdemona is, as it highlights the tragedy that she is not believed against Iago, who is called a ‘villain’ and a ‘devil’ several times in the play. Ironically, the only character to not call Iago ‘honest’ in the play is his wife, which highlights the tension in their marriage.
Whilst Emilia does seem a strong character when she immediately defends herself by saying ‘You shall not write my praise’ when Iago describes his perfect woman as someone who will ‘ne’er disclose her mind’, however the scene is quite light and comic, thus the effect of the exchange is more of a bickering couple rather than a serious comment on Emilia’s character, thus the first time we see her she does seem to fit the role of ‘wife’ quite well.
Additionally, despite the clear tension between her and Iago she gives the handkerchief without question to Iago, even while knowingg that Desdemona will ‘run mad’ without it, and also denies ever seeing it when confronted about it ‘I know not madame’, which altogether illustrates that ultimately her loyalty is to her husband. However, Emilia does do the right thing in the end when she realizes who is behind spreading ‘lies’ about her mistress, thus reveals her husbands dishonesty with her own honesty, showing that she is willing to disobey her husband.
This provokes Iago to really show that he is a misogynist by describing her as a ‘villainous whore’ and even stabs her in an attempt to silence her, which reflects Othello’s own actions in the same scene when he smoothers Desdemona with a pillow. Additionally, Emilia seems to adopt the audience’s voice by shouting out her mistress’s innocence, by calling Othello ‘monstrous’. Emilia’s willingness to defy her husband is also shown in the ‘willow’ scene, as she gives what is has been frequently described as a ‘feminist’ speech by various critics to Desdemona on the relationships between men and women.
She asserts her own masculinity by using base language such as ‘they eat us hungerly’ which echoes her husband’s base language of referring to ‘clyster pipes’, while pleading for equality between men and women. This is in contrast to Desdemona’s increasing passiveness in the scene, who does not blame her husband for anything, even when it seems apparent that her life is in da nger when she says ‘his scorn I approve’ and cannot even fathom why a woman would commit adultery, which is why some critics describe her as ‘child-like’.
This presentation of Desdemona is a far cry from the confident woman that we are presented with at the beginning of the play, showing that she and her husband have changed dramatically. Desdemona comes across differently to how the men initially described her in the play, as far being from being the innocent ‘white ewe’ she is ‘half the wooer’ showing her confidence and equality in her relationship with Othello. Her actions in an Elizabethan context would be very shocking as not only did she not seek her father’s permission she as also married a black man.
This is itself is arguably a strong feminist action, however clearly it defies the label of ‘goddess’ as no man idealises her for these actions. Indeed, Iago even perverts these actions by reminding Othello ‘she did deceive her father, marrying you’, which would tap into Othello’s insecurities that he is too old and the wrong race for her. It is under this influence of Iago that Othello’s presentation of Desdemona changes dramatically, as she changes from ‘fair warrior’ to ‘fair devil’ showing how Iago’s misogyny has changed Othello.
However, it should also be noted that we do not see Cassio interact with Bianca until he is under Iago’s influence, thus it is arguable that by referring to her as a ‘customer’ he too is illustrating his change in character. The label of ‘prostitute’ is also disproved when Bianca thinks that the handkerchief is a ‘token from a newer friend’ showing that her jealousy stems from her fear that she is losing her loved one, and also mirrors ‘noble’ Othello’s actions, thus would suggest that she may be a higher status than just a ‘prostitute’ would suggest.
In conclusion, I believe that the stereotypes of goddess, wife and prostitute work well when the men are presenting the women as shown through their descriptions of them, however when we delve further into the play we realize there are too many complexities in the women’s characters to fit these roles well enough to be convincing. At the end of the play, it seems that nearly all of the female characters are silenced by their men no longer listening to them, and in Desdemona’s case death, thus showing that Iago’s misogyny has triumphed with tragic consequences in the play.