Othello, by William Shakespeare is set in 17th century Venetian society, during this time in history women were viewed as little more than property, owned first by their parents and then their by their husbands.
We are introduced to the character of Desdemona as the wife of Othello, the Moor General of the Venetian army. Despite the racial prejudice of the time, Othello has risen to prominence in Venetian society as a skilled soldier and military leader. Desdemona's choice of Othello as a husband is radically different than that which was expected of her a s a member of high society. Interracial couples face discrimination even today, during the authors lifetime however, such things were far more taboo. We learn of the relationship first when Rodrigo and Iago stand outside the home of Brabantio and scream in the streets " Zounds, sir, y' are robbed!...." (I. i.
86) . Iago is informing Brabantio of his daughter's marriage to Othello. Brabantio is unaware of the relationship, and the use of the word "robbed' reflects the morals of the day. Desdemona, his daughter was his property and his to give away. Brabantio confirms this upon learning that one of the men waking him is Rodrigo, believing Rodrigo is there to call upon Desdemona he says "My daughter is not for theeÃ¢ÂÂ¦" (I. i. 99), Brabantio too felt that his daughter was his to give away or keep as he saw fit.
Desdemona's proper role as a Venetian woman would have been to marry whomever her father chose, she acknowledges this and lays out an brief synopsis of what was expected of women during that time in Scene I, act III, beginning with line 180 she describes and acknowledges her duty to her father, but admits to her marriage with Othello and claims to now be duty bound to him as her husband. This speech is the first indicator that Shakespeare did not agree with the values of his time. The first woman in the play to speak, speaks not just in a passing conversation with others, but instead gives a small speech. Shakespeare uses the character to acknowledge what his audience would have thought, and then to expose them to a different point of view altogether. Desdemona, in marrying a black man, has stepped far outside the boundaries of her societal role. She chose not to follow her expected path however, and married of her own volition, an act of independence not expected of women during that time. Her actions were in stark contrast to the patriarchal society she lived in and would have been viewed audiences as shocking and unconscionable.
It could be argued that Shakespeare wrote the character as such merely to shock his audience, to present his viewers something outlandish simply for entertainment purposes. It is in the character of Emilia that we find the counter to this argument. Desdemona is a woman of wealth and status, her nature, contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the time, taken alone, proves nothing. Emilia is the only other major female character in the play. At first look the two women seem to be stark opposites. Emilia is Desdemona's servant, she is a peasant. Like Desdemona though, she is a victim of her times. She too is expected by society to follow strict mores and standards. Neither woman is expected to be free thinking, free willed individuals. Both are expected to remain loyal to their husbands, and be satisfied by a life of service to them.
Emilia also does not fit the stereotypical mold of women during that time period. Her speech to Desdemona in Act 4, Scene 3, shows this. "Their wives have sense like them, They see and smell. And have their palates for both sweet and sour." (IV, iii, 90-91). The senses Emilia is referring to are the sensual ones, the physical and lustful desires that all human beings have. During Shakespeare's time, women were not expected to have such feelings and desires. Speaking with Desdemona earlier in the same scene, Emelia expresses a willingness to cheat on her husband if the rewards would be great enough. "Ã¢ÂÂ¦who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for't" (IV, iii, 72-73.). Emelia makes a risk - reward analysis and decides that there are circumstances in which she would cheat on her husband, such a willingness is at odds with the standards of the time.
Women during the time of Othello were expected to be servile to their fathers and then after marriage to their husbands. Desdemona was not servile to her father, marrying without his permission and also committing the even greater crime of marrying a black man. Emelia was not servile to her husband, she was willing to cheat on him and in Act V, Scene II speaks out when both Othello and Iago wish her to be silent.
It is with these two characters, Desdemona through her actions and Emelia through her words that Shakespeare presented his audience with a radically different view of women than they would have been accustomed to, he presented them as human beings.
References:Shakespeare, William. Othello. New York: Penguin Putnman Classics, 1998.